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Streaming takes over the upfronts with Netflix’s NFL news and the Great Rebundling

Crates filled with megaphones emerge from a television screen.

Sarah Kim / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

Once a celebration for all things linear TV, the upfronts are becoming a streaming mecca.

This week, several major TV networks gave their annual elaborate pitches to advertisers in venues across New York City, and never has the showcase been more focused on digital. Usually, streaming and digital media news is mostly confined to the NewFronts, but this year Amazon and Netflix joined the weeklong events with legacy networks like NBCUniversal, Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery, all of which devoted significant stage time to their streaming services.

Sports were everywhere. Netflix announced its first major foray into live sports with the NFL, and NBCUniversal plugged its 5,000 hours of Paris Olympics coverage. What else? Celebrities showed up in full force this year following the end of the Hollywood strikes. Bundling is thriving, and transparency emerged as a big differentiator. It was a special form of irony that after NBCUniversal lauded its network as the opposite of a walled garden, advertisers complained about being stuck in line unable to get into Amazon’s upfront.

Here are the major takeaways from this year’s annual advertiser showcase.

Want some sports with your sports?

This year, every upfront pitched sports, sports and more live sports. Leave it to Netflix to disrupt the traditional upfronts with arguably the biggest news of the week. At Pier59 Studios, the streamer announced it will take its first big step into live sports and will stream NFL games on Christmas Day for the next three years. These three Christmas games averaged 28.68 million viewers last year, according to Sports Media Watch. Netflix wrote in a Linkedin post, “You can’t spell Netflix without NFL.” A number of sports docs will also join Netflix’s lineup.

Netflix also used the upfronts to announce an in-house ad tech platform and that its advertising tier has doubled in size since the start of 2024, reaching 40 million monthly active users. Netflix President of Advertising Amy Reinhard said that 40% of all signups now come from its ads plan.

“For years, sports rights went to digital services in fits and starts. But 2024 has proven to be a real breakthrough in streamers getting exclusive rights to the biggest games,” Ross Benes, senior analyst at eMarketer, tells The Current. “Netflix is the biggest subscription streamer and the NFL is the most-viewed league, so this partnership, on Christmas, is the blockbuster digital sports rights deal of the year, a year in which streaming sports broke through.”

With the summer Olympics in Paris, NBCUniversal also leaned heavily into sports with commentator Mike Tirico, known for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, saying the Olympics will generate “eight Super Bowls’ worth” of audience impressions for advertisers. It’s the first year when the Olympics will stream on Peacock, when advertisers will be able to buy ads programmatically.

The rise of sports on streaming services is only a boon to advertisers. As Alison Levin, president of advertising and partnerships at NBCUniversal, says on this week’s The Current Podcast, streaming the Olympics is “creating and opening up a new door to advertisers that maybe have not been able to access the properties before.”

Disney also spent the majority of time on sports (or at least it felt that way) during its two-hour-long upfront, with ESPN being touted across cable and streaming, as well as announcements around more games across the NFL, NBA, college, and women’s basketball, and celebrities like the Eagles’ Jason Kelce joining the channel as an analyst.

Return of the celebs

As is customary, every network plugged their major originals coming to theaters, cable and their streaming services with exclusive first-looks at teasers. NBCUniversal previewed the trailer for Wicked and the 50th anniversary of Saturday Night Live. Disney announced the next Marvel series, The Golden Bachelorette, and the Star Wars series Acolyte. Amazon announced a prequel series of Legally Blonde for Amazon Prime Video and showed off the trailer for the second season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Netflix gave a sneak peek of Bridgerton’s third season and Fox showed a promo for next year’s Super Bowl.

After last year’s Hollywood strikes, this year’s upfronts were significantly more celebrity-driven. Kevin Hart, Snoop Dogg and Amanda Seyfried presented at NBCUniversal’s showcase, while Michael Bublé, musical group Little Big Town and Kelly Clarkson entertained the crowd at Radio City. Fox’s upfront at the Hammerstein Ballroom included Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm. Meanwhile, Amazon had Reese Witherspoon and Will Ferrell, and Disney had Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Kim Kardashian, Michelle Williams, among others (including a Wookiee). Netflix brought out Shonda Rhimes, Cameron Diaz, Mindy Kaling and Jamie Foxx (again).

Warner Bros. Discovery probably had the fewest celebs, but still wowed with Sarah Jessica Parker, Mindy Kaling (again), Conan O’Brien and Shaquille O’Neal (although with Warner Bros. Discovery potentially being outbid for its NBC rights, that might come back to haunt them).

Bundles, bundles everywhere

As the streaming ecosystem evolves into something closer to the heyday of cable, TV networks are partnering up to become “Facebook official.” Last week, Disney paired with Warner Bros. Discovery for a bundle offering featuring Max, Disney+, and Hulu on ad-supported and ad-free plans coming this summer.

And on Tuesday, Comcast, parent company of NBCUniversal, announced its own bundle called StreamSaver, which includes Peacock, Netflix, and Apple TV+, and will debut this month at a "deep discount" compared with buying all those subscriptions separately. These announcements come after the February news of the upcoming sports bundle launched by Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and Fox. The idea could be to make it more difficult for viewers to drop subscriptions on a monthly basis by giving them more options for content they want to watch. It also extends the marketing reach of the individual services.

How will this impact advertisers? “As content becomes more similar across streaming services due to corporate partnerships, the differentiation between them for advertisers will become data and measurement,” says Benes.

Meanwhile, there were fewer announcements of new ad formats this year, but Warner Bros. Discovery did announce new shoppable and trivia ads coming to Max, and the ability to target ads by emotions or contextual elements within scenes — a capability that Disney and NBCUniversal have also recently launched.

Open becomes a point of differentiation

During its upfront, NBCUniversal leaned into how its OnePlatform operates on full transparency. It’s the first upfronts where a common identity solution exists across broadcasters. Roku shared a similar message at the NewFronts only a few weeks prior.

When sharing a campaign for Dominos that drove a 38% increase in sales, NBCUniversal Chairman of Global Advertising and Partnerships Mark Marshall stated: “It’s important to know that we did all of this in a fully transparent way. We did not create another opaque walled garden. We gave visibility to where every single unit ran.”

Cracking up

Networks didn’t shy away from cracking jokes at their own (and others') expense this year, with their nightly talk show hosts referencing some fairly deep cuts.

Seth Myers, for instance, didn’t play it safe at NBCUniversal’s upfront. With ex-NBCU ad Chief Linda Yaccarino leaving for X last year, he had this jab: “NBC is launching a new adventure competition series called ‘Destination X’ — or, as it was originally titled, ‘The Linda Yaccarino Story.’” He also had quite a diss for Paramount: “I found $20 on the street this morning,” he said. “Long story short, I’m one of the two finalists [to buy] Paramount.”

At Disney’s upfront, Jimmy Kimmel inspired a number of articles about how “unleashed” he was, with The Hollywood Reporter simply listing all his jokes of the night. He had some shocking zingers on everything from Amazon leaving advertisers in line outside to Bob Iger trying to sell the company. His jests about identity hit home:

“Just think about how you want to live your life. The only thing that matters, the only that truly matters is our relationships. It matters that our families are healthy, and that the interoperability of our various digital tools and sales platforms provide efficient data tracking and unparalleled identity management. That’s it.”