Coronavirus Fears Hit TV Business, Are Upfronts Next to Go?

A+E and AMC canceled upfront events on Monday — other major networks tell TheWrap more may follow

As Hollywood attempts to navigate the health fears surrounding the coronavirus epidemic, thus far it has been the movie business that has been the most affected. But as every day presents new risks, the television industry is starting to make its own plans, including whether to go forward with the all-important upfront advertising presentations in May.

Update: On Monday morning, A+E Networks became the first entertainment channel(s) to cancel its live upfront, replacing it with plans for a virtual experience. That afternoon, AMC Networks canceled its upfront event “in favor of individual conversations with our advertising clients.”

Over the weekend, an insider at another major network told TheWrap that there was a very real possibility that upfronts, which are headlined by the broadcast network and the biggest cable channels, would be impacted and possibly even canceled. Other insiders pointed to Friday’s cancellation of the South by Southwest Festival as a possible tipping point about the fate of other upcoming widely attended industry events.

Upfronts are a critical event on the industry calendar, when top advertisers get to see the upcoming fall television slates ahead of placing large advertising buys. The upfront presentation period, which also counts digital TV services’ so-called newfronts, begins soon, but it kicks into high gear as the New York City weather warms.

Other repercussions around the television business seem unavoidable. While domestic productions have not yet been affected on a wide-scale basis, producers of shows with live audiences — including late-night talk shows, singing competitions and multi-camera sitcoms — are having more conversations about precautions and options.

While television productions tend to have smaller audiences than the large-scale Hollywood events we’ve already lost to COVID-19, if the coronavirus continues to spread, more restrictions could be put in place in an effort to control the spread of the virus. An increasing tally of sports leagues are considering playing games without fans in the stands, which would produce a particularly odd effect for the small screen.

But thus far few concrete changes have been made, other than to raise the level of caution another notch or two and remind employees of the importance of proper hand-washing.

An insider from a second major network said he was not as concerned about upfronts, given that broadcast TV’s curtain closer is still about two months away. But that might change should talent and networks start to back out as they did for SXSW. Before the festival was canceled on March 6, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix and Starz all announced they would skip the event. Just hours before the entire festival was canceled, Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae backed out of the world premiere of their film, “The Lovebirds.”

Although some networks are preparing as if upfronts will happen as usual, decisions need to be made within weeks if it’s a “no” or a “go,” due to the cost and the logistics involved. Between presentations at a major venue, high-priced parties, travel, accommodations and actual production expenses, programming distributors often spend millions of dolloars.

Each of the network insiders told TheWrap the main change on a day-to-day basis has been limiting travel. Hollywood is following the CDC’s lead — and the result has been lots of teleconferencing. Should upfronts get canceled, those same computers and servers will likely be delivering a network’s presentation to media buyers.

Networks have taken additional steps, including adding additional Purell stands throughout their offices and buildings. Fox News has banned non-essential travel since last Monday, canceled its upfront and promised continuous 24/7 cleaning of its offices.

Lindsey Ellefson, Daniel Goldblatt and Rosemary Rossi contributed to this report.

Tony Maglio

Tony Maglio

TV Editor • • Twitter: @tonymaglio


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