NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Every upfront season, the broadcast networks spend a good chunk of their presentations defending their individual slots at the top of marketers' media mixes. We expect the potshots at their competitors' schedules and older audiences, and even the arguments for why broadcast is still better than cable. But the rise of Hulu, DVRs and Facebook and slipping ratings across the board have forced the networks to do something we didn't expect this year: make the case that TV still dominates.
Jon Nesvig, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s president-sales, led the News Corp. network's upfront pitch with statistics from a recent Council for Research Excellence study that showed that 99% of all video is still viewed on TV. He noted that the study used observed behavior, not self-reported behavior. "While viewers may not know which delivery system they're watching, the power of TV is still stronger than ever," Mr. Nesvig said.
He dismissed cable's inroads by noting that the growth in cable ratings has been driven by news programming, rather than entertainment, and suggested broadcast TV is what marketers need to drive awareness, spur intent and lead to an actual sale.
"Viewers are more likely to take your message to heart" if they see it on broadcast, he said.
Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, took a similar stand for the small screen at ABC's upfront. "TV remains the best platform to reach consumers," she said, citing recent findings from a test of TV ads in Disney's Emerging Media Ad Lab.
"Folks, there's a reason we call it 'broadcast,'" said CBS CEO Les Moonves, referring to CBS's reach. "Despite what you may have heard, flat is not the new up. At CBS, up is the new up."
Given the stark estimates by analysts that 15% of the upfront market will evaporate this year, thanks to the difficult economy, networks weren't eager to tout all the other platforms they've been playing with in the past couple of years. The focus was all on getting the dollars onto their most lucrative platform: network TV.
NBC made a solid case for digital, but that was two weeks ago, during its "infront" meetings with advertisers. Vivi Zigler, NBC's exec VP-digital entertainment and new media, spent a good 10 minutes of the Peacock's presentation touting NBC.com as a portal for all NBC content, playing host to exclusive content from shows such as "The Office," "Heroes" and "The Biggest Loser" and running custom programs for marketers such as Subway, Wrigley and S.C. Johnson.
The CW positioned its lineup of teen-friendly shows as "TV to talk about," touting the success of shows such as "Gossip Girl" and "90210" on Twitter, Facebook and CWTV.com, where the network logged 200 million video streams this season. "Gossip Girl" in particular has benefited from its on-demand views, seeing an 18% live-plus-three-days commercial-ratings spike among women 18 to 34.
ESPN delivered the strongest platform-neutral upfront pitch, plugging everything from ESPN2 to ESPN360.com to its upcoming YouTube channel, which will make its debut July 15.
"We're programming dayparts as if ESPN.com was a new network," Sean Bratches, ESPN's exec VP-sales and marketing, told the crowd. "We want to make ESPN and our partners' brands available to fans in every conceivable way."
Jeremy Carey, director of sports media for Omnicom agency Optimum Sports, praised the presentation's emphasis on screens. "The majority of our buying entails multiple platforms. Very little buying we do now is just TV," he said.
It was precisely that sentiment that had some buyers puzzled as to why the networks chose to focus almost exclusively on TV when long-form web video, specifically Hulu, seems close to achieving the scale marketers were asking for when it was all the rage just two upfronts ago.
"In the past, everyone was trying to prove they 'got' digital. That they had a digital value proposition to put forward in the marketplace," said Margaret Clerkin, co-head of Mindshare's Interaction unit. "This year it seems much more of a PowerPoint element. They are recognizing that digital isn't core, and they're focusing on their core business, which is the big screen."
Each spring, purveyors of digital video hope to get a chunk of network upfront lucre, and each year agencies tell them, "No, thanks." But one type of digital video marketers will buy upfront is some of the digital offerings from the networks, or the ability to own a show both on TV and online.
"We will probably buy some in the upfront if we want a property across all screens and to have exclusivity to that," Ms. Clerkin said.
Because there is scarcity in network TV online, whether on NBC.com, ABC.com or CBS.com, advertisers will spend digital dollars to own a show on TV and on the web. Networks can demand high pricing -- as high as $45 per thousand viewers -- to buy NBC's schedule online. Hulu is asking a slightly lower rate, around $40, because it can't sell individual shows; you can hope for "30 Rock" or "Desperate Housewives" but end up with "Love Boat" or "Alf."
Because Hulu is growing fast, it's intrinsically not sold out (just look at the frequency of PSAs on the site), and agencies feel little pressure to lock in that inventory beforehand. Hulu does get upfront dollars from its network partners, which have the option of selling into Hulu inventory of current shows such as "House" or "Grey's Anatomy."
Larry Novenstern, exec VP-managing director of Optimedia, said online video has become "very important" to the TV viewing experience, especially for serialized dramas, and has helped the year-old Hulu gain serious traction as a TV-level player. "When I talk to Hulu, it's just a question of getting real with them as far as where they wanna be in the overall food chain. Our conversations so far have been about how they're getting there, but they're not there yet. We don't see them to be as valuable as TV, because people are watching it on their computers, and TV is more of a sit-back medium."