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Inside the Turner Upfront: Tiffany Haddish, Anderson Cooper and Lots of Conan Smack Talk

The one-hour, 50-minute upfront was heavy on catchphrases and brand pitches, broken up by a lot of familiar talent.

Snoop Dogg may have gotten a packed Madison Square Garden Theater full of overstimulated media buyers on its feet, but it was Conan O’Brien who became the unequivocal star of the Turner upfront.

The TBS late-night host took the stage (twice) and mercilessly poked fun at the absurdity of the annual dog and pony show tradition, along with the catc phrases and jargon employed throughout the various presentations that line the week. In the case of his own networks, O’Brien homed in on what Turner execs have dubbed the “Omni channel,” corporate speak for the way in which they reach viewers beyond linear television (at one point, a wonky graphic appeared onscreen, with words such as “VOD,” “apps,” “gaming,” “social” and “events” orbiting around the term).  

“The Omni Channel,” O’Brien wound up, “that’s the word that Turner paid $800,000 to come up with. I think that [TBS and TNT chief] Kevin Reilly was staying in an Omni hotel at the time. If he’d been staying at the Sheraton, we’d be talking about the Sheraton channel right now.”

During the one-hour, 50-minute presentation, Turner managed to jam in pitches for each of its networks, from TruTV to CNN, with a cavalcade of stars and a cadre of dramatic clips for projects that hail from everyone from Ridley Scott to Patti Jenkins.

The Gimmick | Samantha Bee is so determined to get people to vote in the midterm election, she announced that she is turning it into a game. Come summer, she’ll launch mobile trivia game This Is Not a Game: The Game, and then head out on a college bus tour to register voters. Bee stood onstage comically begging for marketing partners. When she reminded the room that she’d be connecting with a young, affluent, hard-to-reach demo, she joked, “Did I just hear the sound of 300 rock-hard boners hitting the ceiling of Madison Square Garden?”

The Spin | Reilly has long been known to get onstage and try to shake things up. In fact, as the head of Fox, he once did so at a press gathering and declared the death of pilot season (more recently, he rode a bike onto the TCA stage for a Turner panel). Now, he’s staring into the faces of Madison Avenue buyers and telling them that they’re dinosaur-era-buying tactics have them missing out. It led him into the aforementioned speil about the “omni channel” approach, which can makes a hit drama like The Alienist one that reaches 6 million linear viewers but 51 million across all viewing platforms and 90 million social ones over the course of the series. 

The Room | The MSG crowd ate up the annual if random grouping of Turner portfolio stars Anderson Cooper, Shaquille O’Neal and O’Brien. The highlight came when O’Neal suggested he “enjoyed everyone’s work here.” O’Brien could hardly keep a straight face, quickly calling out the NBA all star turned Turner broadcaster. “I’ve enjoyed everyone’s work here? Such bullshit,” he quipped. “You don’t even know who I am. You think I was on the Celtics 20 years ago.”

The Star Power | Tony winner Daveed Diggs, who stars in TNT’s upcoming Snowpiercer, kicked off the upfront with a Hamilton-esque freestyle rap, with the powerful refrain, “Can I tell you a story?” And Snoop closed it, with some ad-libbing about his love of weed because, well, of course he did. Sandwiched in between was The Last OG’s Tiffany Haddish, who garnered big laughs with a bit about her desire to score a white man, preferably one “with an inheritance.” As for her success, she joked: “Look at me now. I’m standing in front of a convention of white people. I’ve made it.”

The Favorite | O’Brien, who was brought back onstage for a victory lap at the end of the morning pitch fest. To celebrate his 25 years on air, Reilly rolled a lengthy clip reel that included O’Brien’s 1993 audition tape along with a hodge-podge of funny bits and his teary Tonight Show sendoff. O’Brien was far more earnest in his second appearance before buyers Wednesday, suggesting that he has never had as much corporate support and enthusiasm for his work as he does today. He couldn’t simply leave it there, however, which is why his parting words included: “I look forward to seeing you in this room next year when I walk most of this shit back.”

The WTF? Moment | Turner ad sales chief Donna Speciale declared her collection of networks the “most social,” backed up by a cadre of stats that flashed on a giant screen behind her. If the claim has your eyebrows raised, you’re not alone. Fox and ABC suggested some version of the same in the past 36 hours. Your move, The CW.

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