The upfronts have returned as an in-person event following a three-year hiatus, and much has changed, including how both buyers and sellers are striking deals.
The annual dog-and-pony show, which first debuted in May 1962, was first spun up by ABC to give automakers access to prime-time commercial space to showcase new vehicles in shows slated to run in the fall. Today, it’s widely associated with cocktails, exclusive parties, and appearances by celebrities like Morgan Freeman, Mary J. Blige, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The upfronts continue to keep pace with an evolving TV landscape where consumers are radically shifting their viewing behaviors to streaming. It’s also where networks look to strike deals to fund the creation of new content, Tim Sims, chief revenue officer at The Trade Desk, tells The Current.
“What’s interesting about the upfronts is that the exact same construct that started in 1962 is kind of how the industry still does it,” says Sims. “It’s been a very interesting journey to watch how it has evolved and, in some ways, not evolved from the very first presentation by ABC.”
Connected TV (CTV) viewing will account for 36 percent of total time spent with TV this year, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) said earlier this month during the NewFronts. And as Sims correctly points out, that’s not reflective of where advertisers are spending their dollars when it comes to the two channels, as only 18 percent of total video ad dollars are committed to CTV.
“It’s relatively simple why it’s taking so long for [advertisers] to follow,” says Sims. “There is a large industry designed around linear TV advertising. And whenever a large industry must change its behavior, it takes time. But what’s happening is that change is happening at an accelerated pace. And it’s being led by the consumer.”
Networks have long dedicated the month of May to showing off the new content they will be releasing in the fall. That’s quickly followed by the deal process, where advertisers lock in pricing and audience terms for specific shows.
“It’s an old, tried-and-true process that has been happening for decades,” says Sims. “What’s changing, however, is that connected television is becoming a larger part of these conversations. And increasingly, advertisers are coming prepared to talk about their linear investment and their connected television investment, all in the same conversation, because that is just accurately looking at the picture of where people are watching television today.”
Sims emphasized that the networks are responding rapidly and pioneering new approaches to the upfronts. TV juggernauts such as Paramount Global, Warner Bros. Discovery, Tubi, HBO Max, and Peacock are all investing heavily in their data-driven capabilities. Disney, for example, says it’s making a “multi-year, nine-figure investment” to bolster its tech capabilities. The move signals to the marketplace that the future of TV is digital, where marketers can execute one-to-one audience deals programmatically.
Those investments also appear to be paying off, as media buyers are earmarking nearly 50 percent of their video budgets to streaming this year, up from about 10 percent before the pandemic.
“They are adjusting to what’s happening with consumer behavior and that’s reflective of how they’re showing up at the upfronts and all these deal negotiations,” he says. “They have to make sure they’re monetizing their CTV as effectively as they’ve always monetized their linear television. And that conversation is becoming so robust now that I think we’re moving very quickly into a new model and a new future for how television is bought and sold.”