Honestly, I don’t understand the ongoing existence of the annual mating dance between the TV networks and advertisers known as the upfront. As far as I can figure, the upfront is a great excuse for TV execs and media buyers to throw lavish parties as they broker advertising to fund their upcoming fall TV lineups. There’s big money involved – around $9 billion was spent during last year’s upfront – but the process is anachronistic on so many levels.
In the old days, the ritual probably made sense: TV was the dominant advertising medium, the big three networks controlled the airwaves, and prime time shows followed an orderly schedule: premieres in the fall, reruns in the summer. Advertisers locked up the prime spots on the best shows in advance, paying premiums for the most-watched shows. It wasn’t ideal, but everyone grudgingly accepted the process. And the networks raked in big bucks.
Then cable came along, and the Internet, and TiVo, forever altering the universe around broadcast TV. Broadcast viewership continues to shrink. New shows debut on cable channels throughout the year, not just in the fall. DVRs have thrown ratings systems designed for live viewership for a loop. Internet video – and the ad model around it – is catching fire.
The changes have led to much discussion about the composition and even the relevance of the upfront. Why pay in May for shows that may last for a month in September? How does time-shifting and delayed viewing figure into the ratings (and the cost of the advertising spots)? What role does online play in the upfront? I’ve never bought or sold a TV spot, so I surely don’t have the answers to any of these questions. But as an outside observer, the upfront certainly strikes me as a concept that has outlived its usefulness. There has to be a better way.