The upfront, for all of its idiosyncrasies, works remarkably well to create an orderly marketplace in an inherently disorderly industry. The networks are happy with their volumes; buyers found ways to write orders at CPMs they can live with, and the television industry looks remarkably healthy.
You have to love the American television business. It is still the envy of the media world. Ask the online sales organizations ... they spend every day trying to be more like TV.
This is my 33rd upfront, and it's always nice to see the upfronts have their mojo. Well, except for what should have happened in this upfront season -- but didn't.
What's most fascinating to me about this year's incarnation of television's version of a mosh pit is how, even after most of the world's largest marketers have shifted to an integrated, on-offline marketing approach, we are still seeing less integration of alternative digital platforms and digital extensions into the upfront discussions than we probably should.
Is it progress that online video will now be used for Audience Deficiency Units to make up for audience guarantees that fall short? I guess so.
How is it that even as we all acknowledge that the game has shifted to engagement-driven, interactive relationships between audience and story, between consumer and brand, that alternative platforms still don't figure as prominently into upfront plans or presentations as they someday will? I guess it takes time to change TV.
We're getting closer, no doubt, but we're still not there yet. Media agencies still don't know how to easily buy multiplatform deals, and the networks are still perfecting how to sell multiplatform packages in the upfront system.
Mobile was pretty much left off the upfront 2011's guest list. And Canoe's first-born -- national interactive TV -- was mostly absent from the party. Ad-supported video-on-demand via dynamic ad insertion, one of the most exciting new ideas in the age of C3 ratings, looms on the horizon.
Yet set-top box data has yet to be carefully and deliberately feathered into national audience estimates. Addressability on a national scale is being talked about on the satellite platform, but not here quite yet. Companies like TRA, Simulmedia, Visible World and Invidi are all making great strides, but still are not invited to the nation's biggest television soiree.
But wait until next year.
It's not the people involved who are responsible for the upfront status remaining so defiantly status quo, even as digital technology marches like William Tecumseh Sherman toward Atlanta. And it isn't the process itself that's at fault. (I spent many years working with my friends in the business to make the upfront more efficient, but I never for a second believed that the tradition should be jettisoned -- and I still don't.) Rather, it's merely the structure of a linear :30 unit-based business that everything upfront is built upon that needs to change.
We have created a really fine system that is perfectly designed to sell national 30-second commercials -- but not digital extensions, additions and improvements. The challenge now is how to evolve the upfront systems to meet the needs of advertisers in an integrated, platform-agnostic, pull-not-push environment.
Interactive TV is here, and it soon will be part of the upfront dialogue. We need to incorporate new aspects of video -- Americans streamed almost 15 billion videos in April, the largest ever in one month -- into systems that are fundamentally organized around a 30-second buy. Ad-supported VOD with dynamic insertion needs to come to television -- and it will. This is not an easy undertaking, but it is coming, and very soon. How soon?
How about next year?
This change has to come, because advertisers want it, need it and increasingly, are demanding it.
Since I'm not known for being coy, let me make the first prediction for upfront 2012: augmented television will be part of next year's deliberations. Alternative-platform plays that aren't just Web site add-ons to conventional buys will be a big part of the story. So wait until next year. Everybody is going to have plenty to buzz about.