The television industry may be in turmoil, but there's still one thing that hasn't changed: Ad people sure love their booze.
That, at least, was the inescapable conclusion for anyone trying to nudge their way through the crowded lobby of the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Toronto on Thursday evening. Bell Media's annual upfront show, a glitzy two-hour preview of CTV's fall programming, had just wrapped up, and about 1,000 ad industry folk seemed impressively thirsty. And so they quaffed their wine and beer, nibbled on veggie tacos and bacon-wrapped tenderloin, grooved to the live house band, and gawked at the TV stars whose sleek passage through the crowd was eased by bullet-headed bodyguards with security earpieces and no evident sense of humour.
And then the ad people drank some more.
To be fair, they were probably parched; no one had been tending to them all week. Traditionally, upfront week is a regular bacchanalia, in which the TV networks hope that a heady blend of alcohol, programming sneak peeks and proximity to Hollywood stars is sufficiently bewitching for media agencies and their clients to buy tens of millions of dollars in advertising time for next season.
But it's been an unusual upfront this year, with two of the three commercial Canadian broadcasters opting not to produce a big show, but rather host a series of meetings, fireside chats and dinners with separate constituencies in order to deliver tailored messages about the effectiveness of their offerings.
If you look closely, you can see there are messages in these mediums. Together with CBC, which held its fall preview one week earlier, the three broadcasters' differing approaches to the upfront derby offer a snapshot of contemporary network television as a bracing, high-stakes game whose players smilingly insist all is well even as they are running madly off in all directions.
And so Tuesday morning found a couple of dozen reporters in a downtown furniture showroom-cum-event-space, where Rogers Media played a 52-minute video touting its ascendant Sportsnet channels, previewing the dramas and comedies it had just picked up in L.A. for its City broadcast network (Jamie Lee Curtis in Scream Queens! Rob Lowe in The Grinder! Fozzie Bear and Kermit in The Muppets!), and tub-thumping its stable of consumer magazine titles, a collection of radio brands, and its rad partnership with the millennial-friendly 'shroom aficionados of VICE Media.
The catering was low-key and Rogers-brand-smart, with coffee served in BT (Breakfast Television) mugs (yours to keep!), and chocolate-cherry Hello Dollies from the Chatelaine test kitchen. (Alas, they missed a cross-promotional opportunity to offer VICE-branded hash brownies.) If the conventional City TV network didn't exactly take a back seat, Rogers's upfront was designed to emphasize the company's dizzying array of media products on multiple platforms.
It was a sharp contrast to the company's presentation last year, which took over the floor of the Rogers Centre (née SkyDome) for a chest-thumping exercise by Rogers Media president Keith Pelley that trumpeted the company's new 12-year/$5.2-billion NHL deal and culminated in all of the guests receiving a free pair of tickets to a Blue Jays game.
Wednesday was Shaw Media's turn in the spotlight, at the ritzy Yorkville-area Hazelton Hotel. And while the company boasted about some of its own splashy Hollywood pickups, such as Supergirl, TV adaptations of the sci-fi feature films Limitless and Minority Report, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Shaw's Global TV had only four of the top-20 prime-time shows in the season just concluded, according to the ratings service Numeris; CTV had the other 16. So, naturally, Shaw would really like you to know about its specialty offerings, including HGTV Canada, Food Network Canada, Showcase, Slice, and History.
The company is also growing increasingly tired of digital upstarts stealing its thunder, so Christine Shipton, Shaw Media's senior vice-president and chief creative officer, told reporters that, while YouTube may serve up two billion ad impressions in Canada every month, Shaw's various platforms serve up a whopping 16 billion. Shipton delivered this news in a room the size of a large broom closet, where a couple of dozen reporters watched a selection of brief clip reels, before three stars from Global TV's lineup – Jane Lynch, Zachary Levi, and Melissa George – each strode in for a seven-second hello and goodbye. (They were later available for brief roundtable interviews.)
For its part, CBC did what CBC does, which is to say playing passive-aggressive footsie. (Its upfront show – or "Season Preview" – began and ended with 10cc's 1975 hit I'm Not In Love, which is about a guy who's totally in love but refuses to acknowledge how he feels. CBC believes that's the way Canadians feel about it, which may or may not be true.) Executives there acknowledged it had been yet another tough year for the corporation, but they were soldiering on. The presentation was produced in-house and apparently on the cheap, in one of the (few?) large TV studios CBC still controls at its Toronto Broadcast Centre. And, like Rogers, which is similarly an also-ran in prime-time TV, CBC used its time to talk up its other offerings: News, Radio, and its growing online services.
That leaves CTV as the sole remaining flag-bearer for traditional broadcast TV in Canada. So Bell Media execs spent a lot of time on the Sony Centre stage talking about the power of traditional TV to engage consumers (and, oh right, viewers). There were charts and graphs, a lip-sync battle featuring media agency bigwigs, and clip after clip of slick U.S. shows.
It was a lot of sound and fury. Which, in these unusual times, signifies something.