What if you threw an upfront and nobody came?
Yeah, right -- as if that would ever happen. If you can be guaranteed of anything in this ever-changing media world, it's that the upfront presentations being held next week in New York by the Big Four broadcast networks will be packed with throngs blocking sidewalks outside Radio City Music Hall (NBC on Monday morning), the Beacon Theater (Fox on Monday afternoon), Avery Fisher Hall (ABC on Tuesday afternoon) and Carnegie Hall (CBS on Wednesday afternoon).
Similar crowds will gather for some of the others too -- from Univision to Turner. We have already seen huge crowds during this long upfront season. Last week, the line to get into Yahoo's event at Avery Fisher Hall was as long as the whole of Lincoln Center's acreage is wide. A line to get into BuzzFeed's event at BB King's on West 42nd Street stretched around the corner and up Eighth Avenue some distance away.
At all of these events, it has become commonplace to overhear jovial conversations about the multiplicity of upfronts and NewFronts that ad reps and media executives are being “forced” to attend these days, as if attending these presentations and then being served free food and drink in posh surroundings afterwards represents some kind of hardship.
The conversations are good-natured, of course, but they contain kernels of truth -- there are a lot of presentations, all soaking up time and requiring that personnel be assigned to attend them. And they are costly for the networks and Internet companies that put them on too.
And yet they continue to grow in number every year, although the same question is continually asked: Are the presentations useful -- or more to the point, cost-effective -- for promoting the actual business at hand, which is the buying and selling of advertising?
Opinions are mixed on that. Maybe the presentations lead directly to business being transacted or maybe they don't. But what if this annual tradition of upfront presentations were to start to fade away, eventually to disappear?
That could happen, but not anytime soon. Why? Because of how it would look. As a journalist, I can tell you what the headline would be on any story about any broadcast network withdrawing from the upfront-presentation schedule: “[Insert network name here] Pulls Out of Upfront Fray”; subhead: “Move Signals Decline of Broadcast Television As New, Emerging Media Take Center Stage.”
Sure, the stories would all dutifully report the networks’ spin on the withdrawal -- the events are old-fashioned, they don't really influence deal-making, they're expensive, whatever. But all of the stories would follow the “official” line with the irresistible angle that the “legacy” broadcasters are in retreat, while the YouTubes and Yahoos of the world crowd them out of the limelight.
This is essentially what happened in 2008, when the then-president of NBC, Jeff Zucker, decided that NBC would replace its traditional, theater-based upfront presentation with a scenario called the NBC Experience that was styled as a less formal “exhibit” of upcoming shows that prospective clients would walk through, with cocktails in hand.
The network made its actual presentations to agencies in private -- meetings the network called “infronts,” a word that was ahead of its time because now we have “NewFronts,” a category in which we’re now grouping presentations by non-TV companies.
But NBC was derided, and it wasn’t long before the network was back on the upfront bandwagon. Cut to the present day, and so many companies -- large, small, TV and otherwise -- are throwing upfront parties and presentations that there’s no way that any of the broadcast networks can withdraw now. The stories today would be even more negative than they were in 2008.
For some reason, though, that was not especially true where several of the big cable companies were concerned -- most notably Discovery Networks, which this year bagged its traditional multi-network presentation, which had always been one of the biggest of the upfront season, in favor of smaller, private presentations for advertisers and agencies in major cities. Hallmark was also conspicuous in its withdrawal from the upfront fray this year, but you didn’t see many stories declaring that the Discovery and Hallmark moves represented any sort of cable-TV retreat from the upfront limelight.
Maybe there is such a thing as a “cable pass” where this story is concerned, but there’s no such pass for broadcast television. And that's a good thing, because it means that the traditional upfront week providing entertainment and diversion for the ad industry for a couple of warm afternoons in mid-May will continue -- perhaps even indefinitely.