6 Big Takeaways from This Year’s TV Upfronts
The television upfronts are an odd thing for marketers.
On one hand, they’re kind of antiquated: the idea of major advertisers and buyers gathering in person every year in New York to watch live presentations about the networks’ upcoming programming lineups feels a bit unnecessary in this digital age.
On the other hand, they’re immensely useful: in addition to relaying information about shows, the upfronts continue to provide insight about how the television industry is faring, and how content and advertising are evolving more broadly.
Given that media is in such a state of flux, this year’s upfronts, which took place during the third week of May, were especially valuable in drawing attention to a number of important trends and changes.
Specifically, brands of all types would benefit from keeping these six key learnings from the 2019 television upfronts in mind:
1. Television is in a (very important) transitional period
In their upfronts roundup, AdAge noted that a key theme this year was that “the industry is in a very uncomfortable limbo.”
Variety had a similar takeaway. As they put it, “This may be remembered as TV’s gap year—a transitional period between the way things used to be and the way they’re going to be.”
Essentially, every media company tried to do some version of the same thing this year—highlight that their traditional linear television networks are healthy, while also showing that they’re working hard during this very important time to position themselves well for a digital-first, on-demand future.
2. Stay tuned for (lots of) new streaming services
Whereas in recent upfronts, media companies talked about a wide range of digital initiatives, this year the focus was mainly on one thing: owned streaming services.
Disney, NBCUniversal, and Warner Media all are launching their own direct-to-consumer streaming services in the near future and each devoted significant time to talking about these plans.
Moreover, the biggest news to come out of the upfronts didn’t concern a particular show or network, but was rather the announcement that Disney struck a deal with Comcast to take full control of Hulu by 2024.
These coming-soon-but-not-quite-here-yet shifts in the streaming landscape are a large part of why things at the upfronts felt in limbo/transitional this year.
3. Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon are (literally) at the door
Why are media companies rushing to launch their own streaming services?
Mostly because they’re deeply worried about viewers shifting en masse from television to online platforms such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime Video.
As Jimmy Kimmel joked during the ABC/Disney presentation, “F*ckin’ Netflix, they even signed the Obamas!…This is getting bad…But the good news is, if you look under your seats, you’ll find a cyanide capsule. Wash it down with some Whiskey Cavalier.”
Although the big online platforms didn’t do their own presentations, it was clear that the traditional networks feel the competitive threat. In the case of Amazon, the idea of these tech firms waiting just outside the door was literal—the company parked a Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-themed food truck right in front of venues during the upfronts and served meals to hungry advertisers.
4. The big media companies are getting (much) bigger
In addition to streaming, another important theme of this year’s upfronts was media consolidation.
After 15 months of work, Disney completed its massive $71 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox and over the past year, firms such as Comcast’s NBCUniversal also bulked up.
This move toward the big getting even bigger could be felt at the upfronts. As AdAge put it, “Walt Disney, Warner Media, NBCU and even CBS were eager to scream, ‘Look how big we are.’ After its acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets, Disney, unsurprisingly, had the most to show off, though it was a bit jarring to see posters for shows like FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia adorned with a Disney logo.”
5. Big data and better ad targeting are (slowly) coming
For years, advertisers have been promised that the combination of Big Data and more sophisticated technology will enable television spots to be better targeted, measured, and incorporated into multi-platforms campaigns.
To be fair, the industry has been making quite a bit of progress on this. Still, the upfronts highlighted that things like universally accepted modern measurement standards for television are still works in progress.
As Forbes noted, “The TV business has invested heavily to bring to the linear TV world digital-like use of data to identify and deliver more precise audience segments. We have OpenAP (now 2.0) from Fox, Viacom and NBCU; Xandr from AT&T/Warner Media; NBC’s newly christened AdSmart (in partnership with Sky); and Disney’s proprietary analytics platform. Unfortunately, insights drawn from any of these initiatives were little on display at the upfronts.”
6. Television advertising still matters (a lot)
Finally, amidst all of the discussion about digital disruption, it’s important to keep this in mind: television remains immensely popular and ad spend continues to increase in aggregate.
As Variety highlighted in its upfronts preview, “The money committed in advance for commercials in traditional shows has increased in each ‘upfront’ market for the past three years…the nation’s broadcast and cable networks saw advance ad commitments increase 5.2% to more than $20.7 billion in 2018.”
In other words, marketers of all types should continue to strongly consider television as part of their media mix. Ultimately, while evolutions such as streaming, consolidation, and Big Data may change things quite a bit in the coming years, the underlying appeal of the medium to both audiences and advertisers should remain steady long into the future.
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