21CF Chats: FOX’s SVP of Creative Services Tomiko Iwata on how 8,000 sushi pieces, record number of originals make a hit upfront

21CF Chats: FOX’s SVP of Creative Services Tomiko Iwata on how 8,000 sushi pieces, record number of originals make a hit upfront

  • 30,000 pieces of sushi
  • 8,000 pieces of dessert
  • 2,500 guests
  • 9,000 pounds of ice
  • 180 rails of barricade (1,260 linear feet)

A lot goes into planning a memorable Fox Networks Group Programming Presentation and Post-Party in New York City each year. To get a behind-the-scenes look at what, exactly, is involved in throwing a spectacular upfront event, I spoke with Tomiko Iwata, SVP of Creative Services for Fox Broadcasting, who counts 18 years as part of the team spearheading FOX’s big event.

Two years ago, the Fox Broadcasting Company upfront expanded to include all Fox Networks Group brands – from FOX Sports, to National Geographic, to FX and more, with Fox Broadcasting still the centerpiece for the presentation.

This year's Fox Networks Group upfront event will take place today. The Programming Presentation will be held at the Beacon Theater, followed by a Post-Party at Wollman Rink. The Presentation will be broadcast via satellite feeds to smaller audiences in Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles. Toby Byrne, President of Advertising Sales for Fox Networks Group, will address the audience, which will comprise advertisers, Fox executives and creative producers, among others. Fox Television Group Chairmen and CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman will introduce the 2016-2017 slate.

The upfront is the most important presentation Tomiko and her team put on every year. The stakes couldn’t be higher – the industry ritual earns programmers billions of dollars in advertising sales each year. Nerve-racking? Yes, but Tomiko says it’s also the most exciting time of year for her.

When the FOX upfront expanded to all of Fox Networks Group, did it affect the way you approached the planning process?
It hasn't really changed the planning process. It just includes more entities. At the party, we'll have activations that represent the other groups. For instance, this year Nat Geo is doing a virtual reality experience that is going to highlight their new series called "Mars." FOX Sports will be doing an activation focusing on their technology, which is also a VR experience. Also for FOX Sports, we'll have all the championship trophies, from the USGA trophy to the UFC championship belt to MLB’s Commissioner’s Trophy to the Westminster Champions Best in Show trophy, among others.

What presents the biggest challenge or opportunity to do something creative?
That's a good question. I think our biggest challenge every year is being able to show 2,300-plus people a really good time and give them the VIP experience. The guest experience is always paramount and the driving force behind all of our decisions.

We feature some really great trailers, musical performances and fun surprises like that. The house is around 2,500 people, so there's a lot of logistics that go into that. Everything from ever-changing security policies and procedures, to getting people ticketed, to getting people in the theater, to making sure we start on time, given that we have other cities waiting for the satellite downlink feed. There are a ton of moving parts and a lot of logistics, communication and coordination between many, many departments.

Can you give me an idea of what, exactly, goes into this?
It’s like putting together a live awards show. There’s a lot of work that goes into the speeches and the presentation of the speeches. Then the show trailers, which go through a number of revisions to make sure that we're seeing the show in the perfect light. There's also graphics – you never really think about the things that appear on the screen, but that takes a team of designers making these moving graphics, transitions, graphs, words, copy and the graphical support of the speech.

Then you have the rehearsal. When you get on stage, you have the live elements that you have to rehearse with – you might have a musical performance with some dancers, you might have a musical performance with musicians and stunt artists. So it's basically putting together a live awards show – that's what we liken it to.

And what about viewers in other cities?
In every satellite city, you have anywhere from 75-300 people having their own Programming Presentation and Reception. Because it's all live from the Eastern Time zone, Detroit might be having an evening function, LA might be having a lunch, but each of those cities is having its own event. Meanwhile, in New York, from where everything is broadcast, we have the big Post-Party at Wollman Rink, which is obviously really, really fun – a big party.

Our main challenge and goal every year is to make every guest experiences a VIP experience so they don't have to wait in line, they know where they're going, and there's communication back and forth with the guests. There are hundreds of people involved at the event and in the days leading up to it. It’s all based on great communication and everybody knowing what the goal is. Those are the standards we hold ourselves to, because everybody who attends these Presentations is a VIP.

Do you also organize the events outside of New York?
We do, actually. We produce them and we'll go out and find the locations. Recently, we changed venues in Chicago. We have on-site managers who are in each city – one for front-of-house, which is basically for guest experience; and one who is a tech person managing the audiovisual. We work with the local salespeople in those markets, and they all have a great time as well. It's just in a different city.

Wow, so this is really a nationwide planning event. It sounds epic.
Yeah, I like that! "Nationwide planning event" sounds awesome.

Shifting to the more granular aspects of the event: I'm sure food and drinks are a big part of this. How do you think the upfront Party reflects food trends and changing tastes?
That is a huge part of the Party aspect of it, and I am passionate about food. I started in catering, so food and drink is sort of my thing. I think what normally happens, we'll try something – for instance, about 10 years ago, we started off with a slider station and french fries. I insisted on them being cooked right behind the tent to ensure freshness getting to the buffet. It was a huge, popular station, and we did it for probably five years straight. And then, as you know, sliders became popular everywhere, and suddenly it was like, "Well, they're not so special anymore." So we removed that from our menu and changed it up a bit.

We try not to repeat ourselves, because I think that's part of the fun for us and the guests, to have things that are unexpected. From the feedback we hear, it's a party where people look forward to seeing what we're going to do.

Was there a certain dish or food served at an upfront party that was the most memorable to you?
Well, the one station that we have not gotten rid of is the sushi station, which we've had for probably more than 10 years. The sushi station has never come off the menu. I actually pulled some fun facts: It's 72 linear feet for the sushi station this year, and we have over 30,000 pieces of sushi that we go through – we just stopped counting after 30,000.

Probably a good idea. I'm already salivating.
Right? It's funny – it's always one of the most popular stations, so I don't think we're going to get rid of that one anytime soon.

And what about dessert?
We always try to have a lot of fun with our desserts. It's one of the focal points for our parties. I'm big into thinking about, "What's the hook? What's the thing people are going to talk about the next day?" And for whatever reason, a lot of times it becomes the dessert buffet or dessert station. This year, we're going to do cookies and cream, any way you can think it. We have over 100 gallons of ice cream, six different flavors; over 8,000 pieces of dessert, which includes 15 different types of cookies, doughnuts and pastries.

Are there any concepts or themes that I should look for here?
It's going to feature our animated shows, which will be in a line-drawing, black-and-white setting. So all the colorful cookies, food and ice cream will be the color pops at that station. Some of the cookies are going to look like they're actually french fries, we have some cookies that look like pizza – they're so, so, so cute. We have edible bowls – right now, I'm really into edible bowls – so we have some really great flavors of ice cream and you can choose the type of edible bowl you want it in. Or you can just have it plain too. There's something for everybody at that station, for sure.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
I like working with a team of creative people and trying different things and trying to solve problems through design.

We're in a Creative Services department – it's half hospitality, half customer service, but it's also being creative at the same time. So I think that creative process is really exciting to me. And then, of course, really and truly, the payoff is when you see people's faces and their reactions. When you see people walking up to the cookies-and-cream crazy explosion of a dessert station and they say, "Oh, my God," to me that's the hugest payoff I could want. That's the best part of it – the reaction. And that’s why we're here, right? Because we love this. I love doing this. I love my job.