Friday, June 11, 2010

MEDIAPOST: Upfronts? We’re Talking About Upfronts?

If you read that header and it reminded you a little bit of the infamous Allen Iverson rant from many years past, then I did my job as a writer. If you read that line and thought I was going to go on a mild tirade about a somewhat frustrating topic, you might also be just a little bit correct.

The last few weeks have witnessed the typical media coverage over the Television Upfronts with the usual happenings where one network is selling faster than the others and everyone plays games behind closed doors, promising delivery, bonus delivery, negotiating on costs and hoping that things go as “well as the year before”. The Upfronts are a unique experience in my eyes. They’re a tool created by the networks to artificially create demand and increase pricing and they work really well. They’re a chance for marketers to get a sneak peek behind the scenes of the upcoming television season and bet their budgets on which shows will garner an audience. This Upfront season is especially risky with such powerhouses as Lost, 24, Law & Order and numerous other shows getting cancelled (R.I.P. Heroes and Flash Forward) so the risk feels a little bit higher than last year, yet rates are still going up. How is that possible?

The Upfront only works because of finite inventory mixed with a little bit of hype, but addressable TV and the potential of the new Google TV and updated Apple TV platforms may signal the beginning of the end (finally) for the Upfronts. What happens when TV inventory is no longer a gamble? What happens when we no longer need to guess on the audience for new shows when the platforms will tell us what the actual audience is and we’ll be able to deliver a targeted TV message, in close to a “real-time” model? What happened when marketers demand the same accountability in TV that they do from digital and Tv truly morphs into a digital platform? When that happens, and it will happen, the Upfronts lose their luster and all that’s left is hype.

The Upfronts are as much ego as efficiency. I understand the desire to get locked in early to programming for a show that’ll be a hit and securing better rates than you would’ve (probably) gotten in the scatter market. I also understand the issue of leverage, but media is becoming a commodity and TV is not going to be able to withstand that fact for long. Auction models and real-time marketplaces make leverage a dated component of media buying. Replacing leverage is performance and the ability for marketers to gauge actual response as a result of their ads.

Of course there are Internet companies now doing Upfronts and I think in some cases, for some key, finite inventory such as homepages and high profile ecommerce inventory, these can make sense. My issue is not with the concept of the Upfront itself, but with the irrational exuberance that surrounds them in the TV arena. Upfronts should exist to satisfy the needs of the marketers as much as the needs of the publishers, but these feel especially one sided. They’re not the end all of a marketers budget and in many cases they can be the least strategic effort if you lock your entire budget into them, at a higher rate than the previous year, and aren’t afforded flexibility later in the year. Upfronts have a place in the business, but the expectations needs to be reigned in a bit and more in-line with the other trends in the marketplace.

Of course, maybe it is like “practice” in Allen Iverson’s eyes. Maybe we should just stop talking about it and focus on the game itself; the performance of our marketing and how it relates to driving growth. Maybe we should just stop talking about the Upfronts altogether, and the exuberance will naturally fade away?

Yeah, well – here we are years later and I’m still referencing Allen Iverson, so what do I know?