This year’s upfronts were already in flux. Then came the writers’ strike.
There was much anticipation ahead of this year’s upfronts when Netflix announced it would be making its debut earlier this year. Having launched its ad tier last November, the streaming giant was ready to make its pitch to Madison Avenue, live and in-person, alongside the other major networks this week, all keen to showcase their upcoming seasons. But like all the best dramas, there was an unexpected plot twist before the finale: a writers’ strike.
Now in its third week, the strike — initiated by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the labor union representing the thousands of members who create content for movies, TV shows, and news — loomed large over the upfronts. For Netflix, it meant a quick pivot to a virtual upfront, to avoid confrontations with striking writers. Likewise, for other major networks, it meant a less glitzy affair, given the fact that actors would refuse to cross the picket line. So having rolled up the red carpet, the networks shifted their emphasis to sports, news, and unscripted TV shows. A case in point was NBCU’s presentation on Monday, hosted by news personalities, Real Housewives, and Mario Lopez.
The strike was also a reminder of the changing economics of the television industry, at a time when major networks and streaming platforms are figuring out the best way to monetize their content in a newly fragmented world. In a letter to its members, the WGA pointed out that “tens of billions [of dollars] are spent on the programming writers create, $19 billion alone on original content for streaming services this year.”
Inevitably, the upfront marketplace is changing — strike or no strike — from the legacy seasonal event it’s always been to something more akin to a forward market. Behind the scenes, deal-making is evolving, according to media buyers. For the first time, as The Current reported last week, “programmatic has a seat at the table in the upfront conversation.” Ahead of its upfront, Disney promoted the strength of its programmatic business across its streaming platforms. (More than 50 percent of its inventory is streaming, according to Lisa Valentino, executive VP of client and brand solutions.)
At the Fox upfront on Monday, the network opted to showcase its free ad-supported streaming platform Tubi to the crowd gathered at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. “While Fox leadership has previously been vocal about staying removed from the streaming wars, the company has seemingly realized the trends in cable viewership by giving Tubi its prime slot,” reported Ad Age. The company’s president of advertising, Marianne Gambelli, declared that Tubi has grown 44 percent year over year, stating, “To add to Fox’s already powerful portfolio, we went all-in on AVOD,” according to Ad Age.
And this year, Paramount — the owner of CBS and Paramount+ — skipped the annual presentations, opting instead for more meetings with buyers and agencies well ahead of the event. It’s another indication of the more fluid marketplace around buying and selling streaming inventory. By the time the upfronts roll around in May, much of the deal-making is already done, John Halley, Paramount’s ad sales chief, said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re gonna do a postmortem on it, but I can tell you that we are not going back to the old way to do it,” he said. “When you actually query agencies about what they think about the traditional upfront week, it turns out, they don’t like it.”
If this upfront was about a new approach to deal-making, fired by the possibilities of the programmatic marketplace, it was also a forum for discussion about measurement.
“From a measurement perspective, the thing to watch this year is how far we move with alternate currencies, new currencies,” Danielle DeLauro, the EVP at the Video Advertising Bureau, tells The Current. Marketers are looking for better ways to track engagement with specific content, and new currencies are an integral part of the upfront conversations this year, she adds.