That AOL set its NewFront in the old Farley Post Office on the west side of Manhattan is as much about symbolism as it is about size. The unfinished, hulking space inside Doric columns is going through a transition from massive U.S. mail terminal to supermodern Moynihan Station.
It's not unlike the media's shift.
Last week the dozen participants in the NewFronts unveiled more than 100 "shows" in hopes of convincing advertisers and agencies that they're a real alternative to advertising on TV. But a couple of questions linger: After the dust settles and all these series are floated into a digital abyss, will anyone remember them? Or, more important, will they serve their intended purpose, which is to transfer a piece of the $74 billion U.S. TV market to video?
Agencies and brands are certainly receptive to the pitch. The Skylight Room at Moynihan Station holds 900, but when RSVPs exceeded 1,200, AOL added an overflow room and rented a bar across the street. People were turned away from Yahoo at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square (capacity 2,100) and Google's Brandcast at Pier 39 (1,500 attended). It's safe to say that the advertising world got the digital upfronts -- or NewFronts, as they're branded -- they've always wanted.
Some shows unveiled last week look quite a bit like TV. For example, Hulu's "Mother Up!" is a half-hour comedy series -- a "Family Guy" but geared toward women was how producer Eva Longoria described it at the Ad Age Digital Conference. But most are still three to five minutes long: small budgets against small ideas and may be better compared to blown-out "Saturday Night Live" skits than the TV series they aspire to be. Last year's NewFronts -- the first -- produced just one show anyone would consider a breakout, Yahoo's comedic take on "The Bachelor" called "Burning Love." It was a hit not because of its massive audiences but because it was picked up by E! Entertainment.
The power of unique, original content has become obvious to everyone in video. And it doesn't have to be a full schedule; one or two hits will do. "Mad Men" lifted tiny AMC out of obscurity, and a perceived hit such as "House of Cards" (no one but Netflix knows the audience size) has had a similar effect. But the web is still waiting for its "House of Cards" moment, that one giant bet that if successful can define a brand.
No one has made that kind of bet outside the TV ecosystem.
You can argue that advertisers aren't buying single shows on the web, anyway -- the scale is too small. They're buying across networks where original shows are part of the deal.
"These are audience extensions. ... It's about a channel or vertical," said Ari Bluman, chief digital investment officer, GroupM.
Having a hit may not matter as much as aggregating enough non-hits to give advertisers the scale to pay attention. And some argue that a tiny, devoted opt-in audience, say, for Wired's "Angry Nerd" or Felicia Day's "Geek and Sundry" is more valuable than a passive one in front of the TV, where programming is likely competing with smartphones and tablets. "Content doesn't have to be great. It has to be good enough," said Barry Lowenthal, president, Media Kitchen.
Condé Nast Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff -- no stranger to upfronts as former president of the CW -- said cable TV in its early days looked a lot like web video today: low budget and short. That changed as advertisers pushed for longer shows to hold more advertising.
That process may be happening now as marketers look for alternatives in the face of smaller audiences and higher TV prices. But that doesn't mean dollars will shift to web video. "If anything, a buyer reacting to inflated network-TV pricing is more likely to shift a budget toward lower-cost cable inventory," said Brian Wieser at Pivotal Research in a research note.
That said, the video market is the fastest-growing in advertising, up 32% to an estimated $3 billion in 2013, according to Mr. Wieser (though it's still a fraction of the TV market, estimated at $74 billion by WPP's Kantar Media).
More than getting in touch with current TV viewers, advertisers view web video as the best option for reaching those who rarely or never watch TV, the so-called cord-cutters or cord-nevers who are consuming entertainment primarily via the web and paid services.
"Brands that need to speak to this demo realize they won't reach them through traditional TV," said James O'Neill, VP at RJ Palmer Interactive Media. "Those brands that target the 18-to-34 demo should no way hold 80% of their dollars for TV."
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CONTRIBUTING: JEANINE POGGI