Disney 2023 Upfront Takeaways: Unscripted Takes Center Stage, but Marvel, Star Wars and Shogun Bring the Heat
Disney’s annual upfront presentation leaned heavily on the company’s non-scripted programming, opening with nearly an hour of focus on ESPN and its sports offerings. The emphasis on live events, of course, comes as the writers strike continues and is expected to impact the fall TV season.
In fact, around 100 Writers Guild members and other union supporters marched outside the Javits Center on Tuesday to remind Disney they are still looking for a deal with the company and the other studios. Among those seen on the picket line: Zach Cherry and Michael Emerson.
Inside the Javits, sports and news stars from within Disney were out in force, while reality personalities like Kim and Khloe Kardashian, Jesse Palmer and Ryan Seacrest made appearances as well. Even WABC-TV New York anchors Sade Baderinwa and Bill Ritter got some time onstage.
Read some of the key takeaways from the presentation below.
The Writers’ Strike Looms Large — Even if It Isn’t Mentioned
One need only look at the lineup of this year’s Disney upfront (or ABC’s fall schedule) to recognize that the company is clearly feeling the effects of the writers’ strike. The vast majority of the presentation was devoted to unscripted programming like live sports, reality TV, and news. It was more than 70 minutes in before Kevin Feige took the stage and presented footage from some new Marvel shows (more on that below), marking the first real presentation of any scripted series at the upfront.
There was also no formal mention of the strike by anyone onstage, although Rita Ferro, Disney’s president of advertising sales (that’s her above in the photo), did speak of “difficult challenges” that television was facing this year.
Sports Run Down the Clock
In case it wasn’t clear, Disney has a heavy presence in live sports thanks to ESPN. The Mouse House devoted more than 45 minutes of their two-hour presentation to their sports offerings, touching on both college and pro football as well as the NBA and WNBA. It also featured sports stars like Damar Hamlin (who received a standing ovation), Serena Williams (who announced a new docuseries), Pat McAfee (who announced he was coming to ESPN), Breanna Stewart, Angel Reese, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and more.
While live sports are no doubt important to advertisers given that they still attract a massive live audience, the energy in the room started to lag around the 30 minute mark or so, yet nobody had the good sense to blow the whistle.
No Kimmel? Bit of a Problem
Advertisers and journalists have come to expect late night host Jimmy Kimmel’s annual roast of Disney, ABC, and the TV landscape as a whole a highlight of upfronts week. But Kimmel was a no-show for the event, in solidarity with the writers’ strike. The execs and talent who did attend tried their best to throw out some zingers, but the effect was very much not the same.
“Star Wars” and Marvel Pack the Punch
Marvel boss Kevin Feige and Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy brought the goods, both offering first looks at some of their upcoming Disney+ shows. Feige kicked things off with a sneak peek at the upcoming series “Secret Invasion,” including a scene featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Don Cheadle. He then showcased footage from both “Loki” Season 2 and the “Hawkeye” spinoff “Echo” in addition to announcing premiere dates for both.
Kennedy was up next, offering up first looks of the “Star Wars” shows “The Acolyte” and “Skeleton Crew.” She also played a new featurette for “Ahsoka,” starring Rosario Dawson.
Seacrest Reps the Scripted Side
As has been previously reported, most primetime scripted stars have opted to sit out this year’s upfronts in support of the writers’ strike. Without any talent to talk about their individual shows, “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest was tapped to hype up most of Disney’s scripted offerings, from ABC to Hulu to Disney+. It was also quite telling that Seacrest’s portion was at the end of presentation, only appearing for about 20 minutes.
FX’s “Shogun” Makes Long-Awaited Debut
The highlight of the Disney presentation may have come at the very end, when FX debuted a first look at its long-gestating series adaptation of the novel “Shogun,” which the network first commissioned in 2018. The first look was set up by a dozen or so performers dressed in samurai armor taking the stage and engaging in a brief sword fight before footage rolled. Not a bad way to wake people up on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon.
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