After a solid two and a half days of giddy media buyers breathing in one another’s faces, unleashed on Manhattan en masse for the first time in three years, it was Paramount that finally implored upfront attendees to mask up during its Wednesday evening presentation.
A welcome respite from looking at the same, unobscured faces for the fifth, sixth or seventh presentation in a row, the festivities also marked the first time that Paramount held an integrated pitch to advertisers since … well, quite a lot has happened. There was the 2019 ViacomCBS merger that coupled broadcast, cable and studios and, just months ago, a rebrand to Paramount — the new name for both the conglomerate and its streamer. “Next week it will be whatever Elon Musk renames us,” Stephen Colbert quipped of his company’s ever-changing letterhead.
Colbert, sidelined at The Late Show twice this spring with a COVID-19 diagnosis, mocked his own sick leave when he took the stage at Carnegie Hall shortly after the presentation’s start. “Give me COVID once, shame on you; give me COVID twice … please stop giving me COVID,” he said. “But my doctor says I’m super immune now. I could lick every one of you. And if that’s what it takes to get you to buy ad time on Blue Bloodsso with it.”
The comic did not linger, ceding the stage to 60 minutes‘Scott Pelley and company, who helped narrate a presentation structured largely like a telecast of their show. “Why make 60 minutes the theme for this year’s upfront?” Paramount ad chief Jo Ann Ross asked at the top of the show. “We want every minute to be entertaining and informative. We also want to respect your time.”
They also wanted to brag. A 54-seasons-old newsmagazine may seem like the least sexy property on the ad-sales auction block this week — but, in a world of fuzzy streaming numbers and unpredictable subscriber growth, 60 minutes regularly ranks as the most watched telecast on television. This crowd, more than anyone, understands the unique value there. Unlike a typical episode, the mock segments from Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell were naturally quite fluffy. There were jokes about who’s the best reality host and tearful testimonials about the influence of Paramount/BET kingmaker Tyler Perry.
leaning into 60 minutes, however, meant largely leaning away from levity. And given the climate, that wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. The venue’s mask mandate was enough of a reminder that the pandemic has not ended. Bill Whitaker interviewed BET CEO Scott Mills about the TV’s ongoing struggle to catch up with on-camera representation. And, save CNN at Warner Bros. Discovery earlier in the morning, Paramount made the most overt acknowledgments of the ongoing war in Eastern Europe.
There was humor, though — and not just because hearing Lesley Stahl discuss titles like Jersey Shore Family Vacation other RuPaul’s Drag Race is somehow entertaining. Much of the cast of CBS freshman breakout Ghosts performed a musical number, exiting Late Late Show host James Corden held a mini-roast and Wayne Brady hosted a Paramount-themed game show with Tony Dokoupil, Nate Burleson and, in her third upfront appearance of the week, the incredibly busy Nicole Byer. Receptions for all three were warm, much warmer than that for an LL Cool J-led spoof of Apple’s famous 1984 ad — a moratorium on that parody, please! — but it was Yellowstone that likely won the night.
No applause louder than the one Kevin Costner received when he took the stage with co-star Kelly Reilly. (George and Tammy star Jessica Chastain might have stood a chance of one-upping Costner, but she somehow took the stage without a proper introduction.) Hollywood may have a weird relationship with Taylor Sheridan’s Paramount franchise. Advertisers clearly do not. That a basic cable drama could generate noticeably more excitement than a recent Oscar-winning actress speaks volumes to why people still show up (and shell out) at these events.
Ross and Colbert made more or less good on their promise of keeping things at just over an hour, but it wouldn’t be an upfront week visit to Carnegie Hall without a look at the schedule. So, in a first for the week, CBS’ fall lineup was laid out night by night. It was quick, without fanfare or talking points, but it was a nice callback to the reason this bizarre ritual exists in the first place.