ABC Plays Up ‘Roseanne’ and Product Placement at Annual Presentation

Posted May 16, 2018 4:32 p.m. EDT

The major networks are unveiling their latest wares to ad buyers in Manhattan this week at a series of events known as the upfront presentations. It’s a longtime tradition made more urgent, these days, by the exodus of advertisers during the last few years from television to Facebook and Google. Two New York Times reporters who cover the media — John Koblin (television) and Sapna Maheshwari (advertising) — assess what they saw during the ABC presentation at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on Tuesday.

JOHN: That was quite the “Roseanne” show, wasn’t it?

SAPNA: She was clearly the star of the show.

JOHN: A year ago, Roseanne Barr and the cast of her eponymous sitcom were carted out before the Lincoln Center crowd, and the reaction was dead silence. This year, Barr opened the proceedings to huge cheers. The revival of her show has been a ratings blockbuster — and although she rated nary a mention during a recent Disney earnings call, perhaps because of her inconvenient politics, the ABC-TV executive Ben Sherwood played up her contribution to the network’s recent turn in fortune before the audience of advertisers and members of the press. “If anyone came to play a drinking game for the number of times we mention Roseanne,” he said from the stage, “you’re welcome.”

SAPNA: The network also managed to make time for “American Idol,” which it stole away from Fox, “Good Morning America” and a few of its shows from Freeform — Disney’s dedicated cable network for millennials.

JOHN: Here is one statistic I had never heard at an upfront before: Freeform bragging that the premiere of “Siren” got 1 million “starts.” I’m pretty sure that means a million people clicked on it and may or may not have finished it.

SAPNA: You know “Sirens” is for millennials because it’s about mermaids, not grizzled detectives.

JOHN: Tell me about it.

SAPNA: And in the ad realm, if I may —

JOHN: Please.

SAPNA: — it was intriguing that ABC touted all the product placement in its shows. The network highlighted Toyota Camry shots in “Modern Family” and Quaker Oats on “Good Morning America,” and the presentation included a video in which one brand executive said, “We had full access straight to the writers, straight to the talent, and I think that’s unique.” Wonder if we’ll be seeing more of that, given that advertisers are increasingly skittish about viewers’ skipping or ignoring commercials?

JOHN: Here’s a question: Just how often does that happen? And should we be creeped out by that in any way?

SAPNA: The world of product integration is pretty opaque, but the big networks seem like they’re increasingly putting it on the table for major advertisers. “Black-ish” — the groundbreaking ABC sitcom — made headlines earlier this year when Procter & Gamble was written into the storyline of one of its episodes.

JOHN: Another thing that ABC’s Freeform network highlighted: the racial diversity behind the camera, complete with statistics.

SAPNA: We didn’t see a slide with those stats for the broader slate of ABC shows, however. And while the network repeatedly noted the inclusivity and diversity of its shows, it’s no secret that “Roseanne"'s success has sparked a conversation around programming meant for white, working-class Americans, not to mention jokes that, as The New Yorker put it, may be trying to strike a “primal chord of white resentment” in the nation.

JOHN: The Trump victory in 2016 plus the ratings for “Roseanne” have ABC executives talking up its “heartland strategy.” One of its most diverse shows, “Fresh Off the Boat,” about an Asian-American family, is being tossed to Friday night. Speaking of which, ABC says that’s part of bringing back TGIF, its old family-friendly Friday night lineup from the 1990s. How about that?

SAPNA: Not to take the wind of their sails, or shall I say, sales, but ...

JOHN: Groan.

SAPNA: ... but it’s been done before, in 2012. And before that, in 2003. Speaking of Trump, how about Jimmy Kimmel’s joke about ABC’s new slogan, “Forward Together”? His description for that one: “Hillary Clinton had a yard sale, and she let us have that for almost nothing.”

JOHN: As with Seth Meyers at the NBC presentation on Monday, ABC gave significant stage time to a late-night host, and he killed. After noting that CBS plans to reboot “Murphy Brown,” Kimmel said, “It’s refreshing to see anything brown on CBS.” And when it came to advertisers, who love industry jargon, he said, “If anyone here has used the words ‘retargeting,’ ‘brand purpose’ or ‘vertical’ anything today, please raise your hand, stand up and walk out into traffic.”

SAPNA: Kimmel also set up a new ABC show, “Whiskey Cavalier,” for laughs by mercilessly mocking the idea of an FBI agent, played by Scott Foley, who has the name Whiskey Cavalier. And you know, he’s not wrong. But it seemed like even Foley then had a hard time keeping a straight face while introducing the show minutes later.

JOHN: ABC executives were wondering whether he helped kill the show before it even debuted, but I actually liked the trailer for it! The show the ABC folks seem the most excited about was “The Rookie,” starring Nathan Fillion, about a middle-aged man who follows his dream of becoming an LAPD officer. His police officer boss seems skeptical, even a little angry, about why he’s on the squad — it’s like “The Good Doctor” hits the police precinct! And the trailer for “A Million Little Things,” a family drama centered on the suicide of a beloved friend, left the crowd a little weepy.

SAPNA: There also seemed to be some excitement around “Single Parents,” from Liz Meriwether — the creator of “New Girl” — and TV writer J.J. Philbin. Who is, fun fact, the daughter of Regis Philbin! JOHN: I miss Reege. And I’ll tell you something about Regis, dear chat reader. Mr. Philbin has been top of mind all week. Sapna insists on chatting with me — in real life — during the presentations. I’m firmly against this, partly because Regis had a policy of never saying a word to his co-hosts Kelly Ripa or Kathie Lee Gifford off-camera. Save it for the camera — got to keep it fresh. Maybe we can finally apply this strategy for CBS tomorrow, our final stop. Save it for the chat!

SAPNA: It was a struggle on my end, dear reader, when John pretended he couldn’t hear me on the way to ABC’s fete at Tavern on the Green. I was simply asking him to share his umbrella in a torrential downpour.

JOHN: You walk too fast.

SAPNA: At least there weren’t any rats.