Stuart Elliott: It's What's "Upfront" that Counts -- Or is It?

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Stuart Elliott: It's What's "Upfront" that Counts -- Or is It?

Hard to believe, but it's that time of the year again for Madison Avenue. Time for another opening, another show. Well, actually, another 50 or so shows, staged by many of the world's biggest and best-known media owners. From this week through May 19, they're embarking on their most intense and concentrated efforts to woo advertisers and agencies.

Tens of billions of dollars are at stake during these annual springtime bazaars, known for the hawking, hustling and haggling that go on amid the parties, concerts and lines for celebrity photos at selfie stations. The first two weeks are primarily the province of firms that produce original online video as the Interactive Advertising Bureau presents its Digital Content NewFronts.

(Editor's Note: Be sure to read Upfront Yellow Flag: Has the Bull Market Turned Bearish? by Jack Myers.)

Then, from May 16 through 19, the heaviest hitters of television -- among them, ABC, CBS, The CW, ESPN, Fox, NBCUniversal, Turner and Univision -- provide sneak peeks at their fall schedules and kick off the Upfronts. Upfronts, NewFronts, oldfronts, bluefronts ... who's fronting who?

After several years of contentious jostling for position, when traditional TV lost power and influence to its newer digital rivals, forecasters are suggesting that the broadcasters and cable networks seem poised to claw back some of the dollars that have been drifting away from them.

Some of those potential gains are attributable to the realization by marketers such as Procter & Gamble that they ought to bolster advertising spending to stimulate demand for their products and services. The recovering economy, bumpy as it is, also accounts for some portion of the improving picture for traditional TV, as does the fact that marketers waiting until the 2015-16 season began to buy commercial time paid more than they would have in the Upfronts.

Another factor: the scare the new media put into the old media is inspiring the latter to reconsider the bad practices that helped enable the former to grab money and market share. Several networks are rethinking the increasingly heavy ad loads that have alienated viewers and advertisers, undermining the value of traditional TV. They include MTV, TNT and NBC, which announced last week that it would reduce ad loads during "Saturday Night Live," starting with the 2016-17 season, by about 30 percent.

It also appears that traditional TV is gaining on the fundamentals. The difficulties agencies run into when they spend in digital media -- ad blocking, ad fraud, privacy pushbacks from consumers -- could be redounding to the benefit of the old reliables. In a new report from Accenture, the fifth in its "Future of Broadcasting" series, there's a finding that broadcasters are trusted more "to provide high-quality service than Internet video providers and social media service providers."

And as the new media become not-so-new, they're losing the benefit of being the bright shiny object. Before, media planners and buyers were deemed out of date -- even troglodytes -- if they didn't switch ad dollars to streaming video, social media platforms and the like. Now, as the new media companies become an intrinsic part of the Madison Avenue landscape, decisions can be made in more dispassionate ways.

It wouldn't be the "fronts" season if there wasn't grumbling about how jam-packed the schedule will be during the next three weeks and how overwhelmed those involved in it all will feel. Many folks wish there'd be more daylight between the end of the NewFronts and the start of the Upfronts.

A weekend just doesn't seem enough time to recover from two weeks of perusing digital video offerings and to gird one's loins for four days of trying to assess the prospects for new sitcoms, dramas and reality series based only on snippets.

(Of course, you could make a case that, to paraphrase George Sanders in "All About Eve," that's all the NewFronts are, nothing but snippets.)

It would, however, be difficult to reschedule the NewFronts to two other weeks before the Upfronts, what with a spate of industry conferences in March and April, not to mention all the presentations in those months put on by media firms and cable networks such as Azteca America, BET, Comedy Central, Discovery Communications, GSN, IFC, MTV, Nickelodeon and Scripps Networks Interactive. (Look here for reports on all of those events and more.) And there's no question that the NewFronts gain cachet from being held immediately before the Upfronts.

So how about devoting a couple of weeks in May to a combined showcase for video programming, whether it's broadcast, cablecast, online, streamed on a device or intended to be watched on a toaster? Call it Frontapalooza, if you'd like. And try to have most, if not all, of the events take place in one venue -- Lincoln Center, maybe, a la Fashion Week -- rather than make attendees frantically run around Manhattan.

The Frontapalooza could be fronted jointly by the IAB and the mainstream media owners. Or perhaps it could be held under the umbrella of an association or organization. Or heck, why not sign up a sponsor? "Frontapalooza, brought to you by the National Coffee Association, supplier of the Official Beverage of Staying Awake for Negotiations" or the Pizzeria Industry Council, "supplier of the Official Food of Late-Night Negotiations."

Making my proposal possibly more than a pipe dream is the blurring of the lines between the purveyors of video: Traditional television titans are producing digital video (see Seeso, for example) while new-media powerhouses such as Vice are adding traditional TV to their portfolios.

On the other hand, I proposed something like this last year, and it was embraced as warmly as Ted Cruz would be in the green room at "RuPaul's Drag Race." Oh well, as the Brooklyn Dodgers' fans used to say, "Wait till next year."

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