ABC Upfront: We May Lag in Ratings, But We’re the Best Brand

Fourth-place network summons superheroes, Disney princesses and The Force to make its case

ABC may be in fourth-place in advertisers’ favorite demographic, but the network made the case Tuesday that it is nonetheless television’s strongest brand.

The network, which lags NBC, Fox and CBS in the 18-49 demographic and beats only Fox in total viewers, had to tell advertisers a positive story at its upfronts presentation. So it leaned on its history and pedigree.

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Late night host Jimmy Kimmel, who delivered a barrage of jokes, was quick to call his network on its “bullshit,” admitting the “brand” business was a spin.

“The ABC I work at is not No. 1,” he said. “In fact, I might need to crash on your couch for awhile.”

After a sizzle reel that included Disney princesses, Marvel superheroes, and “Star Wars” clips, ABC’s chief reminded the Lincoln Center audience that ABC’s corporate family includes Lucasfilm, Pixar, ESPN, Marvel and Disney.

Also read: ABC New Schedule: ‘Black-Ish’ Gets ‘Modern Family’ Lead-In, Shonda Rhimes Thursday

“When you bring them all together, they are as unstoppable a force as — this is so cool — The Force,” said Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media and President of the Disney-ABC Television Group.

But ABC’s brand is in transition, and there was no better symbol of that than Sweeney herself. She is leaving next year, and will be replaced by ABC News president Ben Sherwood, who she introduced.

“Don’t forget, I’m still a shareholder,” she told him.

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ABC, like every network, said its ratings don’t reflect its influence because the metrics are outdated. It argued that including all formats, such as online and DVR viewing, the network’s new “Resurrection” had more viewers than ABC hits “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost.”

ABC chief Paul Lee made the case that the network is also beating its rivals in another way: passion.

“No network drives a more passionate conversation than ABC,” he said, pointing to shows like “Scandal.” He said ABC didn’t wait for pitches this year, but rather went to writers and producers like “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes.

“We went out and we approached some of the greatest storytellers in the world,” he said. “We’ll take off the handcuffs. What we want you to do is to change the rules.”

See photos: 2014-15 TV Season: First Look at the New Shows 

Perhaps the network’s biggest swing, Lee said, is “American Crime,” from “12 Years a Slave” Oscar-winner John Ridley. The show will examine race in America as it traces a single crime over an 11-episode arc.

Ridley said that when ABC approached him, the only guideline he received was to be bold.

Lee boasted that ABC’s new lineup reflects a changed America, pointing to shows like “Black-ish,” which will follow “Modern Family” on Wednesdays, “Cristela,” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” “Cristela” is about a Mexican-American woman, and “Fresh” is based on Eddie Huang’s memoir about his family of Taiwanese immigrants.

Lee also pointed to Rhimes’ new “How to Get Away With Murder,” which will follow Rhimes’ “Grey’s” and “Scandal” on Thursday nights next fall.

Kimmel said he was weirded out.

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“Saying black-ish is probably the most white-ish thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.

Lee is known for choosing odd, broad comedies — such as the just-canceled aliens-next-door comedy “Neighbors” — and this year’s strangest ABC show may be “Galavant,” a musical set in Medieval times. Disney musical veteran Alan Menken writes the songs, and sat down at a piano to perform for advertisers Tuesday.

Almost every network introduces a new way of selling ads each year, each promising to change the way advertising works. Here is ABC’s description of its new “Freewheel” tool, from the news release:

“FreeWheel provides digital inventory management and adserving solutions to ABC and a host of other broadcast and cable TV networks.  Their new FourFronts Programmatic tool connects ad seller inventory systems with ad buyer demand-side platforms. Importantly, it creates safeguards for publishers to ensure that automated transactions are handled transparently.”

So there’s that.