The future is here. Technology has been fully embedded into our daily routines and consumers have become accustomed to an on-demand lifestyle. Programming is readily available and consumption is fragmented across TV, mobile, tablet, desktop and over-the-top devices. While past upfronts have focused on new technologies and the access for advertisers, there was nostalgia this year at the upfronts. The focus was on the power of TV and the upfronts served as a platform to defend the mass reach medium in this new era.
In another nod to tradition, NBC’s kick-off returned to Radio City after a one-year stint at The Javits Center. The ad community was happy to begin the week in Rockefeller Center, away from the neighborhood Seth Meyers had dubbed as “New York’s historical Stabbing District” in 2014.
Chairman of NBC Entertainment Bob Greenblatt reflected on the past year’s “ups and downs.” This was biggest understatement of the week. NBC’s 2014-15 development slate delivered only one renewal for 2015-16 — The Mysteries of Laura. Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, when passing Greenblatt on stage, quipped “We’re all going to miss you, buddy.” Despite program disappointments, NBC finished No. 1 in the 18-49 demo for the second straight year, aided by Super Bowl XLIX.
Greenblatt is forging the path to the return of family viewing this year. Noting this is an “under-served” segment, NBC’s 2015-16 portfolio will include a development deal with Dolly Parton to turn her Coat of Many Colors album into movies made for TV. The Wiz, the network’s next live musical event, and Neil Patrick Harris’ new variety show Best Time Ever, are nods to the golden era of TV, when appointment viewing was king and watching the tube was a family event.
Over at FOX there was a more modern atmosphere. Less focus was put on the past, which, given FOX’s last-place ratings finish, was understandable. The network is revamping several nights of programming with perennial powerhouse American Idol giving way to a new Empire. Empire’s cast took the stage before an enthusiastic audience, accompanied by former Idol Jennifer Hudson. Show co-creator and executive producer Lee Daniels thanked FOX for having “let black people on television.”
Talent diversity was also a major point at the ABC upfront. Touting the amount of ABC shows featuring minority leads, Jimmy Kimmel joked, “We are so diverse that when CBS drives by us, they lock their car doors.”
In 2015-16, ABC will be bringing back eight of 10 freshman shows for a sophomore run. An 80% return rate for new series is unheard of (see note NBC’s one returning program). The stability of the line-up was not overlooked by the advertising community.
CBS’s upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall Wednesday emphasized TV’s mass reach. In a message to the audience, Network Sales President JoAnn Ross said, “Big data is meaningless if you don’t have a big audience.”
As the top network in total viewers, CBS called on buyers to keep dollars on TV as opposed to shifting to less expensive digital platforms. CEO Les Moonves proudly proclaimed, “We’re the ones who always deliver.”
Moonves pointed out that if you take into account people watching the network’s shows across all platforms, CBS has more viewers than a decade ago. “That little fact shatters a lot of myths about network television,” Moonves said.
The networks’ re-focus on TV as a powerful, impactful, memorable ad platform was a flashback to the more traditional days of advertising. TV’s engaging content and the risk of purchasing online video from publishers who do not have brands’ best interests in mind brought viewability standards to the forefront of considerations leading into 2015-16 negotiations.
Despite the networks’ best efforts, advertisers have continued to hold back dollars in this year’s upfront—some dollars for scatter opportunities and, inevitably, some for other platforms.
While advertising opportunities continue to grow at an exponential rate, this year’s presentations acted as reminders that at the base of all advertising it’s important to focus dollars on what works, and in 2015, TV still works.