The Upfronts are like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – they're an opportunity to see all your friends in one place for two or three days a year. I guess the one big difference, prayer and guilt aside, is that serious industry issues are presented in each House of Worship (i.e., Radio City Music Hall, The Beacon Theater, Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall) and then debated and discussed at length with cocktails and canapés.
In all seriousness, going into the week, everyone was convinced that data would dominate the Upfront conversation and be the proverbial belle of the ball in 2015. In preparation, I brushed up on my programmatic knowledge, and prepared for conversations around Big Data and all of its awe-inspiring implications.
Surely that was a safe bet, given how significant the issue dominated the industry in the past year. Then again, not seeing a half-naked 22-year old pop tart dressed in a butterfly costume spark up on stage at the Adult Swim party while singing a cover of "My Neck, My Back" was also a safe bet. Hey, it's New York, it's the Upfronts, anything can happen.
Which, to my surprise, it did. Turns out that this year's surprise hot topic was not data after all (though there was plenty of conversation about data), but rather the notion of premium content --the new buzzword that will inevitability be tossed around haphazardly without clear definition.
From what I heard (and agree with), it seems clear that the phrase is used generally to refer to content of any kind with high production value – a definition that's at least platform-agnostic but specific enough so you can fairly easily identify what is and what isn't premium content. Kind of like the definition of pornography … you know it when you see it. For example, Empire is premium content. A website with a monthly fee is not. User-generated content, as well, may not make the cut.
With the new slate of shows presented, you can see why premium content was top of everyone's minds, with high-quality storytelling being streamed, broadcast, shifted and coming in over-the-top. I truly applaud those who put premium content forefront on the upfront docket this year, as well as those network executives -- and there were many -- who demonstrated an enlightened sense of the new landscape and how it affects them.
In particular, shout outs are owed to Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal's Chairman, Advertising Sales and Client Partnerships, who aptly said that while the Upfronts are great for getting everyone together for previews, she's betting on premium content whenever it comes to her -- the traditional development or buying cycle for NBC is over.
Over at Fox, it was the first Upfront in new positions for Dana Walden and Gary Newman, Chairmen and CEOs of Fox Television Group (love Scream Queens and Grinder) and a debut of sorts for Toby Byrne, Ad Sales President for Fox Networks Group. Clearly, Fox is buying into the notion as well, putting two amazing creative executives with long, successful track records developing premium content at the helm, with Toby in place to monetize the premium content -- a successful premiere of the new "Big Fox" (Brand Integration Group).
Kudos are due as well to CBS (nobody does it better than Leslie Moonves) which showed flexibility and an impressive, daring departure from its powerhouse procedural strength to protect their near-term future with decidedly untraditional CBS fare including "Supergirl," "Limitless," "Rush Hour" and "Life in Pieces" (the latter starring amongst others, my good friend Jim Brolin). As well, Donna Speciale at Turner and Geri Wang at ABC did not disappoint with formidable presentations.
Don't get me wrong, I don't believe for a second that the industry's data discussions are over -- we're going to have to come to some conclusions about how to handle that superstorm eventually. It's just that content still is king.
Even when that content is a pot-smoking pop princess.
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