NEW YORK – The impact of the Hollywood writers strike was felt as major television networks began their annual week of sales presentations to advertisers on Monday, with news personalities like Willie Geist and Stephanie Ruhle left to hawk comedies and dramas for NBC Universal.
Fox declined to announce a fall television schedule on Monday, citing uncertainties created by the strike.
Some 11,500 members of the Writers Guild for America, saying the rise of streaming has hurt their earning power, walked off the job two weeks after talks on a new contract broke down, and haven't returned to the negotiating table since.
Network late-night shows immediately shut down. Picketing writers targeting some of the few shows shooting episodes forced the shutdown, at least temporarily, of programs including Showtime's “Billions,” “Severance” on Apple TV+ and the new Marvel show, “Daredevil: Born Again” on Disney+.
The network sales presentations, known as upfronts because TV executives use them to convince advertisers to lock in commercial spending months in advance, are major events on the television schedule. They opened with turmoil; writers picketed in front of Radio City Music Hall where NBC previewed programming it hoped viewers would be able to see.
Mark Lazarus, NBC Universal president of television and streaming, quickly acknowledged the uncertainties in speaking to the ad representatives.
“It may take some time, but I know we will eventually get through this,” Lazarus said, “and the result will be a stronger foundation from which we can all move forward together.”
Lazarus came to the stage following a song-and-dance routine by an animated bear, Ted, voiced by creator Seth MacFarlane. Following two movies, the “Ted” character is set to begin a series on the Peacock streaming network.
The upfront presentations are generally known for star power attempting to woo advertisers, but entertainers were notably missing from NBC Universal's presentation. For example, the network and Peacock announced new series that will star Jon Cryer, Jesse L. Martin, Kaley Cuoco and Anthony Hopkins and none of them were there on Monday.
Instead, the new personalities were put in the odd position of pitching entertainment fare, like Geist highlighting programming around the upcoming 50th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live," while Ruhle and business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin touted new dramas.
Entertainers and creators Amy Poehler, Dick Wolf and Simon Cowell each spoke in taped messages, which NBC said were recorded before the strike began.
Three musicians performed for the crowd, each of them with NBC ties. Reba McEntire was announced as a coach for an upcoming season of “The Voice,” Grace Potter was a winner of a past edition and Nick Jonas is a former coach. Jonas noted the audience's cool reaction on a Monday morning.
“I know it's early,” he said, “but y'all feel free to let loose a little bit.”
Similarly absent entertainers, Fox leaned heavily on sports for its upfront presentation later Monday, beginning and ending with ex-football star Michael Strahan and wrapping up in barely an hour.
At an earlier news conference, Fox executives talked about upcoming shows, but not when they would appear.
“No one has a crystal ball about the duration and impact of the strike,” said Dan Harrison, executive vice president of program planning and content strategy. “Once we have a clearer view, we will announce our plans.”
Fox executives said that the pandemic offered practice in the need to be flexible when the content pipeline is suddenly shut down.
The strike will likely mean a greater reliance on unscripted fare, said Allison Wallach, president of Fox's unscripted programming. To that end, Fox announced a new game show, “Snake Oil,” hosted by David Spade and a music guessing game, “We Are Family,” produced and hosted by Jamie Foxx.
Also on Monday, the Peabody Awards, which honor broadcast and streaming media, said it was canceling its June 11 ceremony in Los Angeles because of the strike. Organizers said they “recognize and respect the position” the many recipients find themselves in.
Associated Press Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.