As upfront week wraps up, it's hard not to wonder whether the broadcast networks aren't modern-day Neros: They just spent millions of dollars on lavish presentations and shrimp-filled soirees, touting dozens of shows likely to be dead within the year, all while their prime-time ratings continue to collapse. American Idol may have lost a quarter of its audience, but that's not going to stop Fox from giving advertisers a chance to hang out with Lea Michele at Wollman Rink, dammit! And yet, as anachronistic as the whole ritual might seem in an era when broadcasters no longer dominate every time slot, it really is more than just Kabuki theater. There are good reasons networks invest so much in upfront week. Actually, we can think of three reasons the tradition hasn't died off — and one reason why it might not last forever.
It's still the best way to separate advertisers from their wallets.
To the average viewer reading the dozens of dispatches from Manhattan theaters, upfront week might just look like a really fancy way to announce new shows. But it serves as the starter pistol for TV's selling season. Since around the time Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce launched, networks have been bundling ad time in bulk and selling to Madison Ave. in advance of the fall. As much as 80 percent of the ad inventory gets parceled out between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July (though in lean years it can be as little as 60 percent); this week's spectacle is about getting ad buyers psyched to hand over more than $9 billion (yes, billion) for advance airtime orders. Brad Adgate, a senior VP at ad agency Horizon Media, says that broadcasters have a vested interest in keeping upfronts alive as long they can. "It really works for the networks," he says. "They control the [ad] inventory, they control the content, and they control the timing. They build demand by limiting supply." And, at least for now, it seems to be the best means of extracting revenue from advertisers. "If they could find a better way to make money they'd do it," Adgate says. "They're happy with the model they have."
It lets the Big Four continue to look big.
With so many platforms available to advertisers — from websites to cell phones to video-game machines — it's more important than ever for TV, and broadcast TV in particular, to do all it can to seem as big and dominant as possible. That's a lesson NBC learned the hard way back in 2008, when then-boss Jeff Zucker decided upfronts were totally silly and he wanted no part of them. He got rid of all the pomp and circumstance, shrinking NBC's presentation to a tiny event held inside SNL's studio 8H in April 2008 (a month before the other networks). It would be a stretch to say what he dubbed the "infronts" put NBC on a downward trajectory, but it did nothing to boost the Peacock's ad sales and made the network look small and cut-rate, on the level of a mid-tier cable network. By 2010, NBC was back to a relatively normal upfront presentation held the same week as its rivals. "It was just a bad call," Adgate says. The reality is, while network TV's audience is shrinking, for now it's still the best way to reach a big audience in one fell swoop. Yes, a handful of cable shows and events (The Walking Dead, Duck Dynasty, The Bible) reach broadcast scale. But the Big Four's lowest-rated shows still draw around 3 million viewers, a bigger number than all but the biggest cable hits. When Apple unveils a new iPhone, it doesn't just issue a press release. It invites the world to a fancy unveiling that gets live-blogged around the world. Similarly, it’s in broadcasters' best interests to announce their new schedules at the biggest possible event, to make them seem like the biggest thing in television.
Not to mention, all the parties, spectacle, and parades of TV stars can sway the moneymen; Adgate admits that buyers are not immune to the power of schmooze and free shrimp. "Advertisers enjoy Hollywood coming to Madison Avenue," he concedes. After all, if you were about to drop a few hundred million dollars selling Chevys on CSI, wouldn't you want Jimmy Kimmel to make you feel special by telling a bunch of TV-industry jokes?
Upfronts have become the kickoff of marketing campaigns for new fall shows.
Networks rarely have as long a lead time to promote their new wares as movie studios. Teasers for a big blockbuster like The Avengers can pop up a year in advance; ABC will likely have about four months to hype its series based on that franchise, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As recently as a decade ago, upfronts were mostly an industry event, with average viewers at best maybe reading a summary of each network's presentation in USA Today or catching a sound bite from an upfront party on Entertainment Tonight. But lately, broadcasters have started harnessing the power of the Internet and social media to turn this week into something resembling a less nerdy Comic-Con. Clips from new shows are released to viewers almost as soon as advertisers see them (sometimes even a few hours before), with Vulture and other sites blasting what's essentially free advertising to millions of potential Nielsen families. Like Sundance or Cannes, most major entertainment outlets devote a full week to covering all the announcements and the parties and the celebrity appearances.
Joe Earley, chief operating officer for Fox Broadcasting, told Vulture via e-mail that his team saw the potential promotional power of upfronts back in 2008. "The year we trucked in cows and bought outdoor media to promote Fringe at our Upfront presentation, [it] confirmed our thinking that the value of the event could crossover to consumers," he says. “We've increased our efforts every year since." This year, Fox kicked things up a notch by launching what it calls a "FanFront," which let the teeming masses yearning to breathe the same oxygen as Zooey Deschanel mingle with her and other Fox stars, taking selfies with celebs and grabbing graft from various shows. The network also teamed with Flipboard to let viewers download Fox's new program info to the app. "We've officially declared [upfronts] the beginning of the marketing/publicity campaigns for our new shows," Earley says. A week of publicity for network TV is not, by itself, a reason to go through with upfronts. But it does make the whole thing more justifiable, and serves as a valuable way for broadcasters to get their marketing message out in front of audiences as soon as possible.
The cold water: Imagining a world without upfronts.
Small-screen soothsayers have been fretting about the death of broadcast TV for decades now. In his 1991 book Three Blind Mice, author Ken Auletta wrote ominously of how, after the Gulf War, everyone who was important was asking "whether the networks themselves had a future." Somehow, like cockroaches, they've managed to survive. Still, we don't want to be totally Pollyannaish about the future of broadcast TV, and in turn upfront week. NBC's early 2013 ratings, before The Voice returned last month, were genuinely scary: On some nights, in certain time slots, the network found itself struggling to finish in even tenth place. VH1's Love and Hip Hop this week attracted nearly the same rating among adults under 50 as Fox's Hell's Kitchen. As noted earlier, these are still outliers; most of the time, networks clean cable's clock. But what if the erosion doesn't stop? What if the 18-to-34-year-olds who have had hundreds of cable channels and DVRs and Hulu for most if not all of their adults lives, decide to cut the cord in ten years and go with a Netflix subscription, or make due with on-demand subscriptions to a handful of their favorite shows? If the numbers keep sinking, eventually Madison Avenue will shift even more of its money away from network TV. As it is, networks already seem to be preparing for that eventuality by seeking out alternative revenue streams to help pay for their shows. While advertisers might only pay a paltry $25,000 for a 30-second spot in the CW's little-watched Nikita (about half what the network gets for The Vampire Diaries), the CW struck a deal for streaming rights with Netflix that actually makes it financially feasible to keep producing the series. If such deals become more common, or if networks can no longer rely on ad monies to pay the bulk of a show's production cost, maybe then upfronts will be seen as a relic from another era. Or maybe advertisers will refuse to make too many long-term commitments to networks months in advance, making the idea of upfront sales less critical. None of this seems likely to happen any time soon, however. Indeed, right now, the notion of upfronts may be more popular than ever. Not only have cable networks upped their game, with flashier upfront presentations and parties, but Internet broadcasters such as Hulu and Crackle have jumped into the schmooze game with their so-called NewFronts. "They're imitating us," CBS chief Leslie Moonves laughed Wednesday during a meeting with reporters. "Maybe the upfronts aren't so down if they're now doing 'NewFronts'."