Writers' strike picket lines spoil television's upfront advertising party for NBCUniversal and Fox

WGA members picket at Radio City Music Hall in New York City during NBCUniversal upfront presentation.
WGA members picket at Radio City Music Hall in New York during NBCUniversal's upfront presentation. (Stephen Battaglio)

This is the week television networks parade their wares in glitzy star-studded presentations for advertisers looking to spend billions for commercial time on programs coming to TV and streaming this fall.

But striking members of the Writers Guild of America were out in force to remind the industry that they have some unfinished business that poses a threat to the annual marketplace.

More than 200 sign-carrying guild members circled the Manhattan blocks around Radio City Music Hall, which served as the venue for NBCUniversal's event that typically kicks off ad-selling for the next TV season.

As media buyers entered the theater, they were greeted with chants of "corporate greed" and “I don’t know but I’ve been told, NBC has a heart that’s cold.”

The scene was a reminder that much of the production of scripted TV shows and movies has been halted since May 2, after contract talks between the union and the alliance that represents Hollywood studios and streaming services broke down. The two sides are far apart on a range of issues including streaming residuals, staffing levels and the use of AI.

A lengthy strike poses a threat to the annual ad-selling period when a majority of the commercial inventory for next season's shows are sold. A prolonged shortage of first-run content could be an excuse for buyers to hold back spending and drive down pricing.

Even before the strike, the TV industry was seeing signs of a softening ad market amid uncertainty about the broader economy.

The impact of a nonscripted TV season could be seen onstage inside Radio City Music Hall as most acting talent belonging to SAG-AFTRA stayed away from the spectacle to avoid crossing the picket line. SAG-AFTRA, like other Hollywood unions, has voiced solidarity with the WGA.

Only two actors — Rafael Amaya and William Levy, who both star on shows from NBCUniversal’s Spanish-language network Telemundo — appeared during the presentation of upcoming projects for the company's media entities, which include Bravo and the streaming service Peacock.

Seth MacFarlane voiced his profane CGI plush-bear character from the movie "Ted" in a video to promote an upcoming Peacock series based on the film franchise. A segment featuring showrunners and writers of NBC shows was prefaced with a disclaimer stating the interviews were taped before the writers’ strike commenced.

The lack of movie and TV stars meant CNBC anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin, NBC News Now newscaster Savannah Sellers and MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle were pressed into duty to introduce clips of new drama series and movies coming to NBC properties.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal television and streaming, acknowledged the labor situation in his opening remarks.

“We are grateful for the contribution writers make to our company and respect their right to demonstrate," he said. "It may take some time, but I know we will eventually get through this and the result will be a stronger foundation on which we can all move forward together.”

Josh Gondelman, a late-night comedy writer acting as strike captain outside Radio City, said he was heartened by the support given to Guild members, who heard truck drivers honking as they passed on Avenue of the Americas.

"I think people sometimes picture writing as a pretty glamorous job," he said. "It's a lot of people really trying to make ends meet and have a middle-class living, have a home and raise a family."

A smaller crowd picketed outside the Fox Corp. upfront presentation held Monday afternoon at the Manhattan Center. But still, there was no Hollywood star power onstage. The media company relied on executives and personalities from Fox Sports and Fox News to tout its offerings for the ad community.

Rob Wade, chief executive at Fox Entertainment, assured the crowd of ad buyers that his network has enough unscripted reality programming in the pipeline to sustain itself during the strike.

Fox, the home of "The Masked Singer" and chef Gordon Ramsay's cooking competition series, has leaned more heavily into reality programming since Rupert Murdoch sold his 20th Century Fox movie and television studios to Walt Disney Co. in 2019.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.