Fox’s Scream Queens, Disney’s Data Divas, And Advertising’s Upfronts Top Ten

May 29, 2015

Author’s Note: This is the last of my “trilogy” on the 2015 television advertising Upfronts (hopefully more “Return of the Jedi” than “The Godfather Part III”).

The annual presentations to the advertising community – known as “Upfronts” for television and the “Newfronts” for digital media – are now complete, and rumors that “The Walking Dead” is shooting its new season in Manhattan are false. Those well-dressed zombie-like creatures seen in the last several weeks are just members of the advertising community that ran the gauntlet of 33 different presentations from all of the broadcast and cable networks and a host of digital “destinations” in just the first two weeks of May (another 30 plus took place in April). I had to be far more selective in my own attendance, but I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Of course, for networks, publishers, media buyers and brands, the Upfront presentations may be over but the real work begins in the negotiations over billions of dollars of advertising. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what kinds of questions we should be thinking about from here on out. I’m used to dealing with questions as a group of four, but in honor of CBS’s David Letterman’s upcoming retirement, here is my Top Ten List (of questions) from the 2015 Upfronts:

What do we call this stuff? Jerry Seinfeld, the centerpiece of Sony’s Crackle presentation, described what he and others are doing on that over-the-top video service as “television.” On the other hand, ironically, Linda Yaccarino, the head of ad sales at perhaps the most iconic television broadcaster, NBC, emphasized that what she is selling is “premium video content.” And at the Hulu Upfront, the ubiquitous Billy Eichner noted in contrast to producers claiming that they were creating something like nothing else on TV, Eichner and co-creator Julie Klausner were trying to make their Hulu show “exactly like everything on TV!” Can’t we all just figure this out?

If size matters, how much do I need? For decades it was pretty easy to measure television success, looking to Nielsen alone to tell us how many people (at least according to their model) saw a particular television program and its commercials. Media publishers still emphasize scale, but as Time, Inc.’s head of sales Mark Ford said “there’s a difference between getting an impression and making one.” The latter involves a matrix of metrics such as viewers, time spent, viewability, engagement, sentiment and impact which remains far from settled.

When will digital steal TV’s thunder? Note the “when.” Although audiences and advertisers are clearly moving to the more populous and fragmented digital media world, the timing and actual execution of this shift remains uncertain. Rino Scanzoni, Group M’s Chief Investment Officer, told the crowd at the Cadent Network Upfront that the biggest move of ad dollars from television to digital won’t happen unless the digital advertising business addresses the problems of ad fraud and viewability, and that absent that he could even see a monetary flow back to television in the short-term.

Does data have an agent? As long-time media sales executive Rich Goldfarb told me “data is the new star of the Upfronts.” This is true not only as you might expect among digital video leaders like Google/YouTube, Buzzfeed, Vice, Yahoo!, and Vevo, but at television networks as well. Each of them now offers data and analytics, from “NBCU+ Powered by Comcast” to Fox’s partnership with Rentrak’s StationView Essentials, to Disney/ABC’s All Access data dashboard. Tell the kids – forget law school – become a data scientist!

What exactly is being sold – and what is being bought?  In the 1960s, the buzzword was “plastics”. In the 2010s in television…err…premium video…it’s “audiences.” Despite the parade of stars and glitzy sizzle reels, advertisers and their agencies are on the hunt now for their targeted audiences wherever they can find them.

Is “middle” a dirty word in media? There is a growing point of view that life is going to get tougher for everyone in media but those at the very top. As industry insider Goldfarb pointed out, the largest cable networks are often now losing the most audience to digital, but when you can sell across multiple networks (and digital media platforms), you don’t need every individual property to hit a home run. Smaller networks can still thrive in that protected environment. But if you’re on your own in a consolidating media marketplace, caution is the watchword.

Why is this Newfront different from all other Newfronts? One of the more unusual Newfront events I attended was from Cadent Network. Cadent packages local advertising time from cable operators across the country and sells it on a national basis, making data (OK, no surprise) a big part of their pitch. Their upfront had no one from SNL, no lasers and no sizzle reels – just interesting conversation about the future of the digital media sales marketplace. Is this the future of Upfronts? And where’s my swag bag?

Is this the last upfront? As Willie Sutton once answered when asked why he robbed banks: “It’s where the money is.” It’s true that advertisers are seeking more flexibility and consequently holding aside significant ad dollars closer to the time of actual purchase and airing of the ads (rather than so far in advance as required by the Upfronts). But the Upfronts still serve a valuable market function. If you are a big-time advertiser (P&G, Walmart, Coca-Cola, etc.) and you need to market to a mass audience, or you are a media platform with billions of dollars to sell, there is deal to be made to lock in (or lock away) ad inventory in advance at a price that works for both sides. That equation is not going away any time soon.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 11: Actress Jamie Lee Curtis attends the 2015 FOX programming presentation at Wollman Rink in Central Park on May 11, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Weren’t the 80s Awesome? 1980s stalwarts were front and center throughout the Upfronts, from Jamie Lee Curtis (Star of Fox’s most buzz-worthy new show “Scream Queens”), Rob Lowe (featured both on Fox (“The Grinder”) and NBC (“You, Me and the End of the World”)), Fred Savage (“The Grinder”), John Stamos (Fox’s “Grandfathered”),  Ted Danson (from CBS’s “CSI” to “CSI: Cyber”) and Dennis Quaid (Crackle’s “The Art of More”).

What’s my (favorite) line? I’ll give this to Amy Poehler, who opened her Hulu Upfront remarks by noting “I’d like to send my condolences to Plus” (Hulu Plus is now simply called Hulu). Bravo.

About the Author

Howard Homonoff is a media executive, management consultant, lawyer, and academic.

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