Frustrating as It Is, Upfront Survives for a Good Reason

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

It's upfront time, that point in the year during which we collectively scratch our heads and ask, "How do the networks get away with it?"

This year, instead of focusing on price or calling yet again for the death of the upfront, let us consider what is bought and sold during the upfronts: networks. Even in a world in which technology allows marketers to measure niches and consumers to take their shows with them wherever (and whenever) they go, the networks are selling the broadest packages possible.

Imagine walking into a restaurant and, upon ordering the filet mignon, being told by the waiter, "Sure, you can have the filet. But you also have to order the scrapple soufflé, the 3-day-old fish and the wombat waffles."

This seems to defy sense. After all, what marketing exec in his right mind would spend money on "Cupid" if all he wanted was "Lost"? Of course, if you're in the network's position and can force the marketer to pick up "Cupid" and its ilk just to get its hands on the hottest shows, then why wouldn't you?

But the problem isn't just a matter of quality. Let's say a marketer wanted to get at Fox's "American Idol" demographic. Should it also have to spend millions on Fox's Sunday night "Animation Domination" lineup if it's not interested in that particular demographic?

To switch metaphors, it strikes us as similar to walking into a Ford dealership to buy an F-350 Super Duty for your construction company but being told you also have to buy a Ford GT. It's pretty and it goes fast, sure. But it's expensive and doesn't fit your needs.

So why do 21st-century marketers play along with such a seemingly outdated model?

Because, like it or not, it still delivers what no one else can: reach and mass. For all the talk of niche, there's something to be said for reaching the largest amount of people at one time. For all the talk of microtargeting and superfans, there's still value in "American Idol" or the Super Bowl.

Marketers, after all, aren't stupid. And neither are the networks. Marketers want what the networks have. The networks, the last ones able to deliver such scale, are in a position of strength. And they're not afraid to use it.

It's how supply and demand works in the real world. And we'll be having the same discussion next year. And the year after that.

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