By Ed Waller 11-05-2012
Once upon a time, the existence of pilot season and the Upfronts was proof of how inefficient and wasteful traditional broadcast media was. The digital folks declared broadcast TV couldn’t survive if it continued spending huge amounts of money on dozens of pilots that might never air or appear briefly before bombing.
The entire process was under threat. Even NBC added its voice to the naysayers, cutting costs and pushing for early full-season commitments as it braced itself for the digital onslaught. In 2008, NBCUniversal’s then chief Jeff Zucker dismissed the Upfronts as little more than a “dog-and-pony show.”
How things have changed. These days everyone seems to be having an Upfront, reflecting the new orthodoxy that values original content over acquired. It started with the cable channels, which were quick to recognise the value of owning rather than renting content. Then the Hispanic channels in the US started upfronting their slim slates of original productions. Will local station groups be next?
Now it’s the SVoD services that are embracing original production. Hulu, Yahoo!, YouTube, Netflix and AOL have all held star-studded broadcast-style Upfronts in recent weeks, showcasing their web wares, not in an attempt to emulate broadcasters but to appeal to advertisers in the way they’re used to.
But there’s a difference. Compared with the US$1.8bn ad spend for online video in the US last year, the US$9bn or so committed during the traditional broadcast Upfronts every May is underpinned by scarcity: there are only a few high-reach channels, a few hours of primetime and a few ad spots per hour. If you don’t commit to that buy quickly, you might miss out.
Furthermore, the better metrics offered by the web make the ad-buying process more accountable and less of a gamble than broadcast ad-buying. That’s why the so-called digital Upfronts are marketing exercises rather than serious attempts to nail down future ad spend.
But what about the LA Screenings, which follow the Upfronts? Aren’t they traditionally underpinned by scarcity, as international buyers huddle together to screen (and bid for) a relatively few US series? But that scarcity is disappearing as competition from indie cable product bites, not to mention high-quality series from north of the border and the OTT services.
In fact, what once was a sellers’ market is fast becoming a buyers’ one, as overseas channels also recognise the value of owning rather than renting and put the emphasis on local programming instead of imported.