In nearly every upfront presentation made last week by the big TV networks, executives took pains to stress their expertise in connecting advertisers to consumers, not only with splashy TV programs but also via the many audience-splintering outlets in the emerging social-media sector.
Facebook posts? We do it. Viral video? Check. Real-time conversation? We spark more of it. Twitter feeds? Sure. Social media is the sort of stuff, the TV honchos argued, for which their programs provide the greatest fuel.
News Corp.'s Fox took the strongest stand, telling advertisers its top-rated programs generated more social-media reaction than anything cobbled together by Netflix (which recently launched "Lillyhammer") or Hulu (which has a new program, "Battleground"). Peter Rice, the network's chairman of entertainment, noted that "none of the pure digital companies—not Google, Netflix, Yahoo or YouTube—can currently compete with our reach or scale."
To bolster the argument, Fox is opening a unit called "The Bridge" that will create tailored promotions to work TV advertisers into social networks and other new-media venues where fans of TV shows are interacting.
It's a switch for the big TV networks, which traditionally took pokes at each other during the annual process known as the upfront. Now they're lashing out at decidedly different rivals.
As the networks try to sell the bulk of their inventory for the coming fall season, amounting to around $9 billion worth of advertising on English-language broadcast prime-time TV, they are all taking pains to demonstrate how their programs make better vehicles for ads than anything Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or AOL can muster. Their argument, in a nutshell: Without big TV programs, no advertiser can hope to tie up all the niche groups and audience fragments dusted across the new-media landscape into a cohesive enough base that will make advertising effective.
Old media's new-media stand comes at an interesting time. In the weeks leading up to the TV upfronts, digital-media purveyors such as Hulu, Microsoft and Google held NewFront sessions, or a set of promotional talks with advertisers aimed at snaring some of the money they have in the past earmarked for TV.
It also arrives just as GM has pronounced paid advertising on Facebook is ineffective (see P. 2), which could prompt other marketers to consider whether or not their ads can survive on some of the newest ad venues without some sort of outside boost to capture audience interest.
Going social could also boost ad commitments—or that 's the hope. Even the estimated $9 billion or so in commitments expected for this fall represents a downturn. In 2004, for example, six English-language networks (including UPN and WB) secured around $9.5 billion in ad commitments; they have not matched that amount since, according to Ad Age estimates.
And in recent months, advertiser interest in harnessing social media has intensified greatly. Want proof? Take a look at this year's Super Bowl, in which many of the ads were released early online to spark chatter and viral pass-along by consumers.
"This is definitely the hot button," said Alison Tarrant, senior VP-integrated sales and marketing, at the CW. "How do we figure it out?"
For now, the answer is by throwing nearly anything at the wall to see what sticks. ESPN is working with Twitter to insert advertisers into conversations around big events like the Super Bowl or the World Series. Univision is launching UVideos, a digital cache of on-demand content that will include "social streams" and "TV check-ins."
Meanwhile, NBC Universal already has network and show profiles on Pinterest; an NBC Politics app for political-news junkies; and a new "Oxygen Connect" venture that allows fans of the cable outlet's "Glee Project" to use an app to talk directly with talent and see exclusive program footage while watching the show live. CW has recently partnered with Microsoft's Bing to create a "Twitter party" in which "Vampire Diaries" actress Kat Graham chats with fans.
Linking TV programs to social media is definitely "this year's new flavor," said one ad-buying executive familiar with the tone of upfront negotiations. But the TV networks will have to do more than simply tout the ability of their programs to start trending on Twitter. "What do you do with the fact that people are following your show, and what does it mean to the advertiser?" this buyer asked. "Unless they can figure out a business model, then all it is is bragging rights."
At CBS, executives won't trot out a "cookie cutter" idea to which all sponsors must adhere, said Jo Ann Ross, the network's president of sales. In recent months, she said, social-media-advertising ideas typically come through requests from advertisers or by getting a sponsor involved in the promotion of the show, which these days often involves social-media outreach.
Whether or not social-media ultimately brings in more dollars, the networks clearly feel it's something they can't ignore. Even Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp.'s CEO and a big booster of TV, acknowledged it last week. But in a sign that Big TV still knows where the bulk of its revenue comes from, Mr. Moonves put everything in its place: "The "first screen' comes first, and there's no "second screen' without it," he said.