Buyers Impressed, But Still Might Spend Less

Data was the buzzword of upfront week, but the people in charge of spending advertising dollars said the TV networks did a good job of showing off the quality programming that few digital rivals can match.

Digital video was clearly the competition as far as the broadcasters were concerned. Ad spending on digital and mobile media is rising, while upfront spending on TV took a surprising turn downward last year, with the broadcasters dropping 4.8% to $8.6 billion in sales volume, while cable slid 6% to $9.6 billion.

Significant time in most of the familiarly lavish presentations was spent letting advertisers know that if they like the data and analytics that digital provides, TV can bring that too. Networks execs also pointed out that digital video can be a pale imitation of TV, not nearly as engaging and with its own issue of measurement and viewability.

During the upfront, advertiser make the bulk of their spending commitments for next season. Buyers mostly said they expected the TV ad market to be tepid this year, with some agencies and analysts pointing to declines of as much as 6%.

“I think it’s pretty clear there’s going to be less money,” said Todd Gordon, managing director at Magna Global.

Gordon said client have tended to commit ad dollars in the tradition upfront cycle less and want to spend more across the calendar year and in scatter. But a declining upfront market doesn’t mean lower spending on TV. “We’re in partnership discussions all year round, talking about different ways of working and different deal structure. Upfront’s still big, but it’s not quite as dominant as it once was,” he said. But they said the networks’ upfront pitches are helping their cause.

“TV spending was in jeopardy because of a lack of data. To see everyone focused on this is encouraging,” says Chris Geraci, president for national media at media agency OMD. “There’s no argument about the power of television. All of the networks did a good job of showing the clients that this is show business, that this is supposed to be entertainment.”

John Nitti, chief investment officer at ZenithOptimedia, said he felt the quality of programming was better all-around compared to last year.

“We heard in many presentations about the balance between content/context and data-driven marketing. This is core to our beliefs and approach to the overall video marketplace,” Nitti said. “The mega-media partners that can provide solution in both these areas will see their investment hold or grow.”

When it comes to attracting ad dollars, “TV always has a chance. It’s still delivering great stories across more screens, but with more competition,” says Amanda Richman, president of Starcom. “The one that perform will be more money. The dollars will follow.”

Measuring performance is one place where data enters the picture. “Everyone is embracing data in some role,” Richman say. But in the TV world, the jury is still out as to whether the data currently available will define TV’s value to advertiser.

“It’s a pivotal year for data to how it will drive specific metrics. Every marketer wants to see if it works for their products,” Richman say.

Some networks pushed data harder than others. At CBS’ upfront at Carnegie Hall, ad sales president Jo Ann Ross and one of the geniuses from the top rated comedy The Big Bang Theory were dressed as twins to explain that data doesn’t have to be complicated. “Big data alone is meaningless if you don’t have a big audience giving you access to the consumers you want to target,” Ross said.

Data was addressed in some even more off-beat ways. ESPN brought in sports anchor Kenny Mayne to offer a humorous take on data—“ I will zero and one you while ESPN nickels and dimes you.” At Turner, Charles Barkley appeared to dislike analytics for advertising as much as he does for basketball, comparing the idea to a rich man giving his son-in-law a job. “We can’t say he marked money, so we have to call it analytics,” said the ex-jock known as the Round Mound of Rebound.

Fox used a video of Rob Lowe to talk about viewability to warn advertisers about buying “crappy online video” rather than reliable TV. The viewability argument from Fox, NBC and ABC resonated with some buyers. “Viewability and making sure our clients’ messages are seen in flight is important regardless of what screen, and a topic we will see evolve throughout this upfront,” Zenith’s Nitti said.

But more often it was network sales execs uttering that four letter word—data—from center stage. “You are going to hear it no less than 1,000 times this week. But it makes a lot of sense for you to hear it here first,” said NBCUniversal sales chairman Linda Yaccarino at NBC’s upfront on May 11.

Over the past year and a half, NBCU has introduced a strong of data-driven products. “You no longer have to choose between data-driven targeting and the power and scale of television,” she said.

At ABC’s upfront, Geri Wang, president of ad sales, introduced a new TV product that matches set-top box data to a clients’ information about its customers. “If you’re a retail client, you could weight your programming mix toward shows that over-deliver apparel shoppers,” Wang said. “This takes television beyond the traditional demographics, allowing for more data and personalization.”

ABC also introduced a digital product that lets clients plan, buy and deliver specific audiences based on data and includes not just online inventory from ABC, but from ABC Family, the ABC Stations, Disney Media, ESPN and Maker Studios.

Even with all the talk, It was unclear how ready-for-prime-time the networks were to do a lot of business based on data and to use currencies other than the traditional age and sex demographic to make transactions.

Buyers said that to some degree planning and buying based on data was still in the experimental stage. And they said offering data products might make them more attractive and draw bigger budgets than the networks that are lagging.

Starcom’s Richman noted that at Turner Broadcasting’ presentation, sales president Donna Speciale was offering to make guarantees based on the audiences marketers were trying to reach to sell their products.

During her presentation, Speciale laid out details about the results clients have gotten with data-driven campaigns.

She also introduced a new ad product called Audience Now. With Audience Now, in this upfront Turner is offering to replace traditional demo guarantees with audience-based guarantees similar to digital programming in this upfront.

“Data and content are officially hitched,” Speciale said. “Turner is prepared for this critical inflection point. We have what it takes to make big things happen for you and your brands.”

Magna’s Gordon said that data will inform more deals, but won’t necessarily be the basis for transactions yet. “The currency for the market is still the age-sex demo CPM. I don’t see that changing radically,” he said. “Data’s being used more broadly and it’s better data than in the past.”

Some buyers were also impressed with the creative portion of Turner’s presentation.

“I love seeing a guy like Kevin Reilly [a former Fox and NBC president who is now Turner’s new chief creative officer] getting a fresh start. Where he takes those networks will be interesting to watch,” said Geraci of OMD.


While media executives liked many of the shows they saw in last week’ upfront presentation, there were only a few can’t-miss hits.

“When I look at the fall schedule some shows have definite possibilities,” said Billie Gold VP, director of programming research at Carat, who labeled two sure-fire successes.

The CW’s superhero show Legend of Tomorrow was the best pilot Gold says she saw. Also very promising to Gold is ABC’ The Catch from Shonda Rhimes, which is scheduled as a mid-season show. Other shows, with potential to pop are Fox’ Scream Queens, which shares some of the DNA of Glee, and the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

There were also some shows Gold has serious reservations about. “I love Neil Patrick Harris, but Best Time Ever is a disaster,” she said.

And while CBS’ strategy behind putting Supergirl on its schedule made sense in terms of bringing in a younger audience, “the show doesn’t fit the CBS brand.”

She added that the clips from ABC’s Muppet Show revival made her laugh and would appeal to a family audience. But not week in and week out.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.