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Why the Digital Brand-Safety Panic Won't Help TV in the End

By Published on .

Advertisers' alarm at showing up next to offensive content or supporting fake news may have dinged digital media in the short term, but an online pivot to professional entertainment content will help digital in the long run, Steve Rubel argues.
Advertisers' alarm at showing up next to offensive content or supporting fake news may have dinged digital media in the short term, but an online pivot to professional entertainment content will help digital in the long run, Steve Rubel argues. Credit: YouTube via YouTube Spotlight

Many of the digital ads served on dominant social platforms like Facebook are adjacent to original or shared news content. But that's the opposite of TV, where safer scripted shows and live sports dominate ad spending. News, financially, is a blip.

Now a big pivot is under way. Just as the big TV networks' annual upfront pitches to advertisers get underway, the major digital platforms are gunning for entertainment. Their goal, in part, is to create a much safer environment for brands where adjacency isn't an unfortunate bug, but rather a feature. Like TV. It eliminates the odds of being next to extremist, critical or polarizing content, not to mention so-called fake news.

It will also increasingly undermine TV's ability to differentiate itself by saying its shows are the only brightly lit entertainment options out there.

Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube are now somewhat quietly engaged in a footrace to create the best feed for free, high-quality entertainment video content. Some of it live. Some of it scripted. Much of it ad supported.

Facebook, for example, in February hired MTV executive vice president Mina Lefevre to build out the social network's original programming.

Snapchat, which has long been building out its Discover platform for professional publishers, in March signed a deal with Mark Burnett's production company to create original shows for Discover.

YouTube just told ad buyers that it is creating six original series with brand-friendly stars like Kevin Hart and Katy Perry, not to mention even more for its paid service YouTube Red.

And Twitter at its first-ever NewFront rolled out 16 streaming video partnerships -- many of them focused on lifestyle, sports and entertainment. (Though news is still there.)

This pivot to showbiz is not just a play to capture higher video ad rates. It's meant to loosen the flow of advertising out of TV overall and into digital platforms.

This is happening but not fast enough. In 2016, according to Zenith, linear TV still accounted for 42% of ad spend. Further, Magna said that TV still remains quite strong in luxury.

Brand-safe entertainment content can speed the flow of these dollars. What's more, it can create a more attractive free alternative to paid video subscription services like Netflix and and HBO Now that are popular, in part, because there are no ads.

To be sure, there's still a huge role for news still on platforms. However, the ad model of the future is to create enough entertainment oriented inventory that, because of mobile, can scale accordingly to make the rest ad-free. This will over time eliminate the need to run ads anywhere near any turbulent news.

Publishers, advertisers and consumers should be rooting for platforms to get the great pivot right. It could be a massive win for most -- not just tech players.

The media companies, while not walking away from pure news, can start to invest more in infotainment in part because it's viable. This will enable them to charge higher ad prices, deliver larger scale and potentially stronger business models. Tastemade, for example, told the New York Times that it has seen more than one billion views a month on Snapchat Discover.

Advertisers, meanwhile, will find a digital model that looks more like and perhaps even replaces scripted TV -- one where brand safety concerns are few and far and any risks involved are anticipated.

Finally consumers will benefit as well. When done right, this shift can seed content that supports their need for affirmation vs. for information. The societal merits of such a move, however, are debatable given the scale. Challenges still persist.

Some have long been saying that the future of digital advertising looks like TV. Now, finally, the platforms faced with brand safety concerns on the advertiser side and ad-free attention arbitrage on the consumer side are finally poised to make it happen.

This should have most everyone in digital media feeling optimistic, because it can create many winners, not just the two companies that have dominated to date.

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