Normally, of course, the upfront is talked about as a "market." It's an expression that connotes something more akin to the stock exchange than what actually takes place: a series of high-production-value show-and-tell sessions in such storied venues as Radio City and Carnegie Hall, followed by several weeks of into-the-night, allegedly cigar-fueled negotiations between longtime adversaries who are often also close friends.
The idea that those events constitute a market has always been debatable in semantic terms, but events this year make the notion of the upfront as some kind of quantifiable exchange seem even more questionable.
365 days a year
Most buyers and sellers already point out that they trade 365 days a year and not just in the months of May and June. That will only become a more pronounced phenomenon as deals get more complicated. While some low-grade TV inventory may become, essentially, something of a commodity that can be traded as such, the "TV" deals that advertisers prioritize will increasingly involve packages including sponsorship, talent, brand integration and time-shifted digital properties. With so many moving parts, and nonlinear offerings on the table, it'll get harder to ink deals during the upfront season, and more negotiations will spill over into other months.
The year-round trading model has been further underscored by Johnson & Johnson's decision to move to a calendar-year buying cycle while Coca-Cola Co. makes noises about sitting out the trading part of the upfront -- its executives will attend the show-and-tells in force, but not necessarily engage in negotiations afterward.
Buying in advance was often predicated on the idea that they were getting a pricing bargain -- and the fear that scatter could be priced 20% higher than upfront purchases. Perhaps the networks can force scatter prices upward again, and if they do advertisers may again start to feel that they have to be involved in the upfront. But the proliferation of media offerings and options for advertisers (a more or less unstoppable force) is giving them the leverage to pick and choose whether to take a seat at the negotiating table in early summer. J&J is not the first to sit it out, but it's the first to do it so publicly. Others will follow its lead.
Am I saying the upfront will go away? Absolutely not. It is useful for the networks to have a showcase period -- apart from anything else, it gives them leverage with the studios and producers who find themselves on the wrong side of a supply-and-demand equation every spring. It also, of course, helps establish spot-price guidelines for the year and effectively creates a hedge market for the advertisers, allowing them to forecast the price of their No. 1 marketing expense.
Am I saying the upfront should go away? Absolutely not. Content has never been as important to advertisers as it is today. More consumer control demands better content that gets invited into consumers' lives. The upfront is a showcase for that content and a great time to demonstrate how that content can be leveraged across a range of platforms.
But what I am saying is that if you're still trying to quantify upfront trading and drawing strong conclusions based on that, you're probably missing the point. Sure, we'll name a number in Advertising Age and likely that will be the one agreed on by the market. But tomorrow's upfronts will be more a curtain raiser, a chance to ogle the goods, than a definitive marketplace. This is television and it will be revolutionized.