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8 Things We Learned at the Turner Upfront

Variety logo Variety 5/17/2017 Brian Steinberg
© Provided by Variety

Few things say “Buy my ads!” like a late-night comedienne talking about the anatomy of a female elephant.

Samantha Bee took to the stage on behalf of Time Warner’s Turner, letting the sundry advertisers and ad buyers in attendance at Madison Square Garden’s Theatre in on some of the back-and-forth that takes place between the writers and producers of her TBS program, “Full Frontal,” and the network’s standards-and-practices department. In one email she put on display, producers sought permission to use a word often used to describe a body part that is rarely used on basic cable.

The upshot: Bee’s staff got to do what they wanted.

That spirit appeared to infuse a lot of Turner’s presentation, where edgy humor was woven into many of the pitches, which included the off-the-wall programming of Adult Swim; a meeting-of-the-minds with Conan O’Brien, Anderson Cooper and Shaquille O’Neal; and a dramatic presentation from CNN that played up the role of anchors including Don Lemon, Dana Bash, Jake Tapper and Alisyn Camerota in delivering verifiable reports on national news in a chaotic era.

Like other media companies, Turner faces a moment of upheaval. Traditional TV audiences are migrating to other kinds of viewing experiences that aren’t always easy to monetize. Speaking at the presentation, Turner executives articulated a strategy of being willing to break conventions to accommodate new kinds of advertising. “We are delivering premium experiences across every screen,” said Donna Speciale, president of Turner advertising sales.

Below, some of our findings:

*Did you know you were watching an “omnichannel”? TBS and TNT president Kevin Reilly brought out the term while speaking to the audience Wednesday, noting that executives were trying to move “from a linear network of shows to a brand that creates and capitalizes on fandom everywhere.”

*James Corden stops at Turner before CBS.  Hours ahead of the CBS upfront, “The Late Late Show” host stopped by the Turner presentation, pulling double duty on Wednesday. Corden, who is producing TBS’s “Drop the Mic” series, opening Turner’s show with a well-received rap poking fun at the cable networks and executive Kevin Reilly. He also made sure to give a shout out to his other boss: “You’ve got Quiznos backstage,” he told Reilly. “Les Moonves has shrimp.”

*Conan O’Brien and Shaquille O’Neill are the odd couple you never knew you needed. The TBS late-night host and the Turner sports personality sat on a quick panel with Anderson Cooper –a reprise of a meeting set up at last year’s Turner confab. We wouldn’t be surprised if TBS has started development on a Conan/Shaq buddy comedy. But Cooper also provided fodder: “Why are you here?” O’Brien asked the anchor. “The republic is hanging by a thread!”

*CNN’s brand power strikes a chord. The cable news network had the most powerful portion of Turner’s upfront, bringing out its roster of anchors, including. Anderson Cooper, to the stage. A voiceover of “fake news, fake news, fake news” rang loudly as the news personalities walked out under dramatic dim lighting, then being individually illuminated by a spotlight to deliver powerful messages: “Now, more than ever, our mission is clear,” Cooper said. Another anchor proclaimed, “The press needs to be there and be worthy to protect our amendment.” And another, “We aren’t liberal and we aren’t conservative. We are reporters.”

*Tracy Morgan offers preview of his return to scripted.  The beloved comedian, who suffered critical injuries in a near-fatal 2014 car crash, appeared in a pre-taped skit with Reilly, drumming up anticipation for his upcoming TBS sitcom, “The Last O.G.

*”The Alienist” is Turner’s hot property. The first footage from TNT’s TV adaptation of the best-selling book was shown to the audience as the grand finale of the upfront presentation. The lengthy video was teed up by Reilly who praised the much-anticipated and long-gestating drama.

*Turner’s hot duo: Rick & Morty. An animated vignette meant to talk up Adult Swim featured the odd couple debating over how to speak to a room full of advertisers. Rick, the mad scientist, gulped down pure grain alcohol while telling his nervous grandson he knew full well what he was doing. As it turns out, he doesn’t.

*Less equals more. Reilly told attendees that all of the new series launching on TNT in months to come would run with reduced ad loads. The theory is that commercials have a better chance of standing apart from the pack if a) the network runs fewer of them and b) they are designed to tie into the content they accompany. Turner unveiled this strategy last year on both Tru and TNT, but it appears to be gaining more traction.

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