TV Upfront

How the Upfront Can Become the 'Forefront'

TV Has a Rare Opportunity to Transform the Institution of the Upfront

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The Final Episode of "Upfront, I Love You (Now Change)"

Last week I confessed that I love the annual TV upfront, then waded into some of the problems with the upfront that even I can't ignore.

Now we all have to make one more admission: The upfront TV marketplace has been cast as a fountain pen in the age of voice recognition, but there actually have been attempts to improve it. At the urging of media agencies and their clients, the major media companies anchored by their TV networks have placed some big new-media bets in an effort to reinvent themselves. Often their efforts have been frustrated, however, by the seeming paradox of a marketplace that demands innovation but doesn't always reward it.

Despite their expectations and digital investment, traditional media companies haven't captured their "fair share" of the marketing dollars flowing into digital channels. So you can't necessarily blame them for thinking that there is a parallel universe out there which favors vendor entropy over synergy, at least when it comes to their business.

But recent changes also present a rare opportunity to transform what's old into something new again. Here are a few ways to get it done.

Social TV
Are we surprised that TV and social media is a match made in marketing heaven? Outside of the weather and Tim Tebow, about what else is there to make small talk? After all, TV started out as an inherently social media form in a Rockwellian world (a different kind of "Big Brother"... in this case with little sister next to him) in which the family gathered around the set. (One show for all? Unheard of these days!)

Our love of TV is the most natural and continuous bond outside of our relatives. (After all, blood is thicker than water, but one could argue that the dedication to "Mad Men" is thicker than blood.) There is no other part of our culture that provides the basis upon which the collective can connect over a sustained period of time in a shared human experience. The principles of social TV are solid, a way to once again create "Cooler TV" (without the water) and reach consumers in real-time amidst the disruptions of a multitasking, time-shifting, ad-skipping, attention-deficit world.

There will always be something special about a shared viewing experience, whether the connection is physical or virtual. And if it takes millions of tablets and smartphones to connect us to our TV and each other in today's reimagination of the power of the family den TV, then so be it. The upfront needs to embrace social TV.

Measuring online video
Nobody puts Baby in a corner! ... Unless "Baby" is media and we can't accurately measure it. TV is truly everywhere, and the unparalleled access to video's sight, sound and motion has transformed media consumption. Yet we hesitate to invest in what is literally before our eyes because ideal measurement is sometimes lacking or lagging.

Is this the inverse logic of the axiom "I'll believe it when I see it?" In this case, we seem to be following the rule "I'll believe it only when I can measure it." The pursuit of reliable analytics should empower, not paralyze.

Nor should our efforts to measure, however, necessarily equate new media with old and anchor one to the other. Is an online video rating point really the same as a linear TV rating point? A cross-platform currency sounds nice, but let's not limit ourselves to the lowest common denominator of exposure-based measurement. We should not overlook video's potential to be more flexible (see Hulu's Ad Selector and YouTube's TrueView) and powerful (click to shop!) than linear TV advertising. That could, in turn, help make ad packages across traditional and digital video more compelling. And while we're at it, as TV sets literally get smarter, let's find a way to turn linear TV into its own new media.

If you have viewed the Canoe joint venture's long paddle to addressable TV commercials with some satisfaction, you are missing the point.

That's not to say you'd be alone. Plenty of people worry that addressable TV is Pandora's (set-Top) box, poised to destroy the basic business model of mass media by cutting a lot of wasteful (but lucrative to the networks) ad spending out of the system. "Acceptable waste" has been an inherent ingredient of efficient mass-media purchasing from the beginning of (advertising) time, of course. If clients can reach their precisely-defined consumers by purchasing only that portion of a show's audience, won't their overall media investment naturally drop?

But I have never met a client who would spend less on a particular medium as that medium improves its effectiveness and ROI. When it comes down to revenue potential, it is all about the maximum yield for each 30-second unit within a program. And without boring you with the math, when each 30-second unit is deconstructed into bite-size audience components and targeted to complementary advertisers (each of whom is willing to pay a premium for the chance to buy less than the whole), the total unit yield will rise, not fall.

Simple? Of course not. It is a jigsaw puzzle of epic proportions -- the old world of regional and sectional buys on steroids. But targeting on TV will ultimately prove no different than ad targeting on the web.

And let's never forget the viewing experience, a combination of program and ad content. As ad content becomes more relevant to viewers, they will watch more. For you programmers out there, I don't have to tell you that the average length of tune-in for TV is less than 20 minutes, and you know that viewers are not flipping away from your show during the big reveal. Using the technology of customizable ad delivery, a show's ad content can be just as relevant as the program itself, and you will be rewarded with higher commercial ratings , even among DVR users.

Let the battle begin!
Was I just talking about commercial ratings and total unit yield? Let's put this another way. Upfront castle-dwellers, it is time to take up arms! The digital barbarians are at the gate (dressed in Silicon Valley chic instead of sheepskin and leather sandals). They were raised in a culture of "innovate or die" (OK, more like a virtual death where you can purchase more virtual lives, but still). Their ranks have grown (scale) and they are coming after your women and children (target demos).

Turn your upfront into a marketplace at the forefront of technological change and human experience. Because as much the greatness of a TV program cannot be adequately described by rating points, human needs and desires cannot be solely described by data. There is a point where content, platform and data meet, and that 's where you will find human beings.

Mike Rosen is president and chief activation officer at Starcom USA. Follow @Starcom_USA for his reactions to the networks' upfront pitches this week.

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