Wait For It: By 2021, You Won’t Recognize the Upfronts

"Although news coming out of the upfronts this year wasn’t particularly revolutionary, the same cannot be said for the broader tide of announcements that has been reshaping the TV sphere." -Anupam Gupta, Chief Product Officer, 4C

The 2019 television network upfronts for ad buyers came and went this year with the usual fanfare—news around network positioning, upcoming shows, celebrity appearances and, yes, lavish parties. Despite the current tumultuous television landscape, these annual events looked and felt much as they have in recent years. But that’s going to change—and soon.

By 2021, you’ll be hard-pressed to recognize the TV upfronts in the context of how they function today. While it’s hard to see past the awkward stage of digital upheaval in which TV finds itself today, the pieces are at last falling into place in terms of the future of TV buying. Two years from now, the linear-digital coalescence that we’ve all been anticipating for years will have finally happened, and media buying will never be the same.

Positioning, Posturing and Planning

Although news coming out of the upfronts this year wasn’t particularly revolutionary, the same cannot be said for the broader tide of announcements that has been reshaping the TV sphere. The new media landscape—the one in which new consumer behaviors across streaming, over-the-top (OTT) and other digital viewing environments are reflected in how brands purchase advertising space—is rapidly falling into place. The roster of players that have thrown their hats in the ring to vie for the portion of TV budgets that is expected to shift from linear to digital over the next few years is impressive, as are their ambitions.

Consider just a few of the news items that have rocked the industry over the past year: AT&T acquired programmatic ad tech platform AppNexus, thereby uniting real-time analytics and technology with premium TV and video content. Disney has continued its absorption of major media players with its acquisition of Fox's entertainment assets, which was made all the more relevant by the unveiling of Disney+, its forthcoming OTT subscription video on-demand service. Viacom acquired video streaming service Pluto TV, a rising ad-supported streaming service that attracts more than 12 million users. Comcast outbid Fox in a $39 billion takeover of British broadcaster Sky, which has invested deeply in digital media and OTT in recent years. Nearly all traditional linear TV players have rolled out their own new OTT and streaming offerings, both subscription and ad-supported.

Meanwhile, the pure-digital players continue their own evolution. We’ve seen platforms like YouTube and Hulu get into the live TV realm. Facebook is doubling-down on video and new content formats with Facebook Watch, its video-on-demand service. Snap is launching Originals, some from publishers like Buzzfeed, and has even formed a joint venture with NBCUniversal to produce more. Twitter has made deep investments in sports content licences. Companies like Netflix, Amazon and Apple are investing billions on original programming. Roku continues to refine and ramp its ad business. “Convergence” is the right word for this trend – but convergence toward what, exactly?

Many Paths to a Single Destination

While it might seem like today’s TV and video players are all scrambling in disparate directions, all underlying intentions and forward motion are running on the same track: toward a future where advertisers can buy all linear and digital video content seamlessly and simultaneously. By the 2021 upfronts, this will no longer be an emerging trend or area to watch. It will be a reality. The new media landscape will be set.

Ultimately, the playing field is going to be a lot more level than anyone might have suspected only a year or two ago. Traditional linear players like Disney, NBCU, CBS and others will be going head-to-head with digital-first movers like Google, Facebook, Snapchat and others. Legacy defensive strategies built around the brand safety of linear and traditional TV formats will break down as digital channels grow or acquire new compelling offers in this arena.

At the 2021 upfronts, linear, streaming and OTT offerings will be bundled in a way that at last enables advertisers to optimize properly across channels. Linear and digital distinctions will fall away, as discussions of audiences and integrated cross-channel strategies take center stage. Yes, there will still be celebrities and parties. But the real star of the 2021 upfronts will be the sophisticated audience intelligence that enables advertisers to allocate their TV and video impressions based on known consumer affinities, cross-channel viewing habits and all the nuanced segmentation enabled by digital media. At the 2021 upfronts, we will see true coalescence at last.

4C is a global data science and marketing technology company that delivers self-service software for brands to execute video-centric marketing and optimize business outcomes.