Media giants lean on sports as Hollywood strikes still loom over content slates


Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers prepares to take a snap in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs0 during Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 
Michael Reaves | Getty Images

Media giants relied on sports last year when they had to woo advertisers during the Upfronts meeting week at a time when a Hollywood strike and cost cutting bit into their content and star power.

This year, while stars once again graced the stages following the end of the strikes, the presentations still leaned more on sports than scripted shows.

The hangover from last year’s work pause meant some media companies had fewer series and movies to highlight during their presentations. Cost cutting from companies including Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery didn’t help matters.

Live sports remained the darling of the Upfront meetings, as it still beckons the biggest audiences, and, therefore, the most advertising dollars.

“I think [the companies] benefited in terms of earnings during the strike. And I think there was hesitance to ramp up because of all the issues of trying to understand how content expenditure was really driving return,” said Tom Rogers, Oorbit Gaming and Entertainment executive chairman and former NBC Cable president.

“There used to be this kind of automatic, where you put out a certain amount of programs for the new season and it was relatively formulaic without much sense of being able to understand how content drove profitability,” he added.

He noted two key issues for the traditional media companies: the decline of traditional TV and the increasing fees companies have to pay to air live sports.

“If you’re going to maintain a reduced level of content spending, by definition, that means your entertainment programming has to be reduced,” Rogers said.

Light on entertainment

A scene from Marvel’s Daredevil season 3 on Netflix 
Source: Netflix

Disney played up trailers for the upcoming Disney+ series “Agatha All Along” and “Daredevil: Born Again,” but for its cable network FX, only highlighted the next season of the popular series “The Bear,” which also streams on Hulu. The company also announced the “Golden Bachelorette,” the next installment in the popular reality series on broadcast network ABC.

Warner Bros. Discovery put series like “House of the Dragon” and “And Just Like That” — both spinoffs of HBO series — front and center.

“A strong content slate — be it sports or entertainment — is only one piece of the puzzle, however,” said Amy Leifer, chief advertising sales officer at DIRECTV Advertising. “With the explosive growth of [ad-supported streaming], the modern TV experience is as dependent on content as it is on the ads that support it.”

Some films played a big role in the Upfronts, especially after streaming services like NBCUniversal’s Peacock got a boost from blockbusters like “Oppenheimer” recently.

Comcast’s NBCUniversal focused on the upcoming musical film “Wicked,” and the renewal of some Peacock original series.

The summer movie box-office season, which runs from the first weekend in May though Labor Day, is expected to shrink around $800 million this year as the season brings a limited and unsteady stream of blockbuster films. It follows a second quarter that lagged nearly 50% behind ticket sales seen during the same period last year.

The movie calendar is expected to ramp up in the fourth quarter, with major titles like Warner Bros.’ “Joker: Folie a Deux,” Paramount’s “Gladiator II,” Disney Animation’s “Moana 2” and Universal’s “Wicked” arriving in cinemas. Calendar 2025 and 2026 are slated to have a significant boost in titles, including features from major franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Batman, Super Mario Bros. and rollover tickets from a third Avatar film.

Meanwhile, tech giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video that recently added cheaper, ad-supported tiers to their streaming platforms entered Upfronts week in full force, showcasing not only sports but also upcoming films and series.

Amazon, which now owns MGM Studios, noted the renewals and upcoming seasons of original series such as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “The Boys,” and “The Summer I Turned Pretty.” Actor Jake Gyllenhaal announced a sequel to “Roadhouse,” and Will Ferrell and Reese Witherspoon discussed their film, “You’re Cordially Invited.”

Netflix, meanwhile, announced the sequel to Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore,” as well as a slate of other series.

Sports domination

The Olympic Rings being placed in front of the Eiffel Tower in celebration of the French capital won the hosting right for the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

The NFL once again reigned supreme at most Upfront presentations this year.

Tentpole sports programming from the Summer Olympics to the NBA — which beckon the biggest TV and streaming audiences, and vast amounts of advertising dollars — were also key parts of the presentations.

“We often hear from top clients that the significance of upfront buying has diminished outside of securing placements in live sports,” said Mike Dupree, chief revenue officer at Teads, a global premium publishing platform.Access to quality content in an on-demand world has reduced the scarcity that historically drove the upfront model. Live sports seems to be the last bastion, as proven through rights renegotiations.”

NBCUniversal dedicated much of its presentation on the upcoming Summer Olympics in Paris. The NFL played a role in all presentations, including for the newcomer to the ad-supported streaming landscape, Netflix. It made perhaps the biggest sports splash during Upfronts week, when it was announced hours before its presentation that it reached a deal to air NFL games on Christmas Day over the next three years.

Amazon showcased Thursday Night Football, its second Black Friday game, and an upcoming wild card playoff game in January — the first ever for Prime.

“This year, we saw media giants banking on big bets like “Wicked,” the Olympics, and sports superstars like Jason Kelce to generate buzz,” said Tim Hurd, vice president of media activation at digital marketing agency Goodway Group. “There was a lot of excitement around the evolving live sports landscape and leveraging college sports, NFL games, and the Olympics as an omni-platform experience.”

Kelce, who recently retired from the NFL after 13 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, appeared at Disney’s upfront to announce he would be a commentator for ESPN beginning this season. His appearance made headlines — as he and brother Travis Kelce are prone to doing — when he picked up “Abbott Elementary” star and creator Quinta Brunson during the event.

— Sarah Whitten contributed to this article.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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