TV Upfront

The Upfront Still Goes By a 'Broadcast Year'? Really?

It's Time for the TV Tradition to Take a Close Look in the Mirror ... and Then Get Surgery in a Couple of Areas

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

Yesterday I proclaimed my undying affection for the TV upfront, which many disparage as one of the most idiosyncratic and outdated practices this side of handwritten drug prescriptions.

Despite its resilience in the face of these attacks, however, even I will argue that the upfront needs to take a close look in the mirror ... and then get surgery in a couple of areas.

The Broadcast Year
We still have a "broadcast year?" Really? Why?

Fifty years ago, Detroit automakers introduced new models in the fall. TV networks timed their new seasons to match, all the better to capture Detroit ad dollars.

Now auto companies roll out new models all year long, making TV the only business whose calendar does not match anyone else's fiscal, cultural, lunar or even religious year. And for you agri-conspiracy theorists who think that the broadcast calendar is not based on cars but tractors, with the fall TV season supposedly coinciding with the end of kids' busy crop-picking duties and the return to school, when was the last time your children wore overalls? Even the Mayans laugh at us and our broadcast calendar.

As a result, nearly every client is forced to "forecast" (see also: "take a wild guess at") its budgets for three out of the four quarters that we negotiate during the upfront. Then we spend the rest of the year reconciling against real budgets. And never mind the time-warp confusion when we talk to our clients: "Yes, the first quarter of the annual deal is firm, which is really the fourth quarter" and "Is that your second quarter, or ours?"

Anyway, what industry establishes its busy season during the nicest time of the year? What sadist thought that our longest hours should start Memorial Day weekend? This cruel practice probably dates back to the vicious warlords (account guys and creatives) during the dark ages (The Full Service Agency Empire). Just sayin'.

The broadcast year is the QWERTY keyboard of business, an anachronism originally implemented for a valid purpose that has outlived its reason for being. (The QWERTY keyboard was invented in the late 1800's as a typewriter design to prevent the hammers from colliding with each other.)

A calendar-year marketplace would align better with most advertisers' fiscal cycles. And , and as programming strategies continue to move toward a more year-round launch approach (just like the auto industry), the timing of the transactional window need no longer to be tied to the fall.

We still consider Adults 18-49 or Adults 25-54 a "target ?" You've got to be kidding me. In the age of data and analytics, the best we can do is "narrow down" our TV focus to 120-130 million of the total U.S. population of 300 million? Talk about lousy aim!

Those who think recent setbacks in addressable TV advertising mean we're stuck forever with the endemic waste of mass marketing are missing a key point. Precision and accuracy in reaching consumers can be achieved in many different ways, including an understanding of the emotions and motivations that drive media choices. Our agency's own Starcom EQ (EQ standing for emotional intelligence) analytical framework turns the focus from demographics to human motivations. However we go about it, though, the bottom line is that we must wean ourselves off the blindfolded "Pin the Tail on the Demo" approach.

I have enough trouble explaining what a "network" is to my kids, who would probably name a Chinese website if you asked them where they watch their favorite shows. What are the chances I can get them to understand "dayparts"?

A soap opera is a "daytime" show, right? But what if it is time-shifted on a DVR or streamed at a later time? Or if it is in Spanish and airs in the evening? And when we buy a prime-time show on cable that is packaged with 120 re-airs (I might be rounding up a little there) across many different times of day and night, is that still a prime-time buy? (Cable notoriously suffers from the "It's happy hour/prime-time somewhere in the world" syndrome.)

In our world, suppositions about quality and therefore relative pricing, as well as how TV is currently packaged for sale, are still based upon arbitrary daypart definitions that date back to when the FCC defined the broadcast day. Now dayparts are but one set of lines that we need to erase to "un-define" the overly simplistic commandments that form our current bible.

In fact, dayparts are just a warm-up for the larger debate about the relative value of video across a multitude of devices, where long-standing beliefs about what works are changing but the related business practices have not -- which is unfortunately typical for our industry.

After all, the broadcast networks kept charging commercial "integration fees" for years after lower-compensated computers (without health benefits) took over the jobs of (highly dexterous) union workers inserting videotapes into VCRs. Isn't it time to retire the legacy of dayparts, along with "gross vs. net billing" (when's the last time an agency took 15% anyway?) and any other outdated marketplace rituals that favor tradition, simplicity, laziness and fear of change over increased accuracy and precision? (It's a rhetorical question, but it will be therapeutic to say "yes" loud enough for your colleagues to hear you).

Now I'm sure you're saying to yourself: "OK Mike, it's easy to criticize (and quite fun), but how about offering some solutions?" Well, I'm glad you asked. Stay tuned for the third and final episode of Upfront, I Love You! (Now Change), in which I will recommend some much needed modifications to this venerable institution, as well as reveal the identity of the killer and his/her lovechild. See you Monday, just in time for Upfront Week.

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

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