Unbundle The Upfront, Unveil The Unfront

For a number of years now, there's been an annual round of comment and speculation on the future viability of the upfront in its current form.  Many have questioned the sense of it all, the process, the excess and the overall basis on which such large sums of money are allocated in so short a period of time.  Erwin Ephron probably best summed up the sentiment of many seeking or expectant of change when he said, "Organized crime keeps better books.  How else can you spend $9.3 billion in two weeks over the phone?"

(On last week's TV Board, Joe Mandese speculated on how things might change this year, and why. As he points out, there are a number of planets aligning, such that things just may shift this year.)

As the number of channels and -- more recently -- platforms available to advertisers has proliferated, so has the enormity and complexity of this annual salesfest.  At the same time, questions seem to be raised more loudly each year on just how long advertisers will continue to see this as the best way for their agencies to allocate millions of dollars of media spend.  Seemingly, it is only a matter of time before it all implodes, only to be replaced by some other model (the model of the moment being some sort of online media exchange).



Yet, despite the misgivings, the upfront appears vibrant and strong. It's the Super Bowl of TV deal-making, a once-a-year event supported by seemingly endless parties, presentations and haggling, with a cast of thousands and almost as many hangover cures.  Buyers and sellers alike put their best foot forward and do the Dance of the Seven Veils as they seek to get the deal of their choice.  To date, few advertisers have actually taken the step of truly withdrawing from the process.  Will more follow?  Who knows?  Will the upfront unravel and become the unfront?  Who knows?

One thing is for sure -- the role of digital as the supplement to the core TV offering is now well-established. We are likely to see significantly more money devoted to online video within these deals than in last year's upfront, if only because of the increased amount of inventory and the continued growth in the industry's enthusiasm for the sector.

But the upfront is still fundamentally about TV. As Jack Myers recently pointed out during the TV Board panel at Mediapost's Outfront Conference, the economics of the industry and the vested interests of those who do well away from the status quo will ensure that for some time to come, things aren't going to change too radically.

But the status quo -- by definition -- is based on recent history.  As we see rapid change in the media landscape and in the technologies that underpin it; in media consumption patterns and efforts to measure them, it's interesting to speculate what the upfront might look like if it was unburdened by history and we were inventing it to be launched for the first time next year.

Would the whole thing still be so heavily oriented to TV over other video-capable media?  How would cross-platform deals be guaranteed and delivered?  Where would the DVR question sit within the mix?  Would DVR viewing be sold at a discount against live, or would we find some other point of agreement between buyer and seller?  And what about non-video extensions of program content like text campaigns, Web sites and product placements?  Would we see a more fully integrated approach to marketing campaigns that use TV programs as their creative hook to combat the erosion of ad effectiveness resulting from increased penetration of devices that facilitate ad avoidance?  Or would such erosion flatten within the next couple of years, lessening the need to overhaul the process?

What will be of increased importance within the new upfront, and which aspects of current practice will wane? 

Take a few minutes and share your thoughts on what the upfront would ideally look like next year if it was given an extreme makeover.  You may decide it would be basically the same with no more than a few tweaks, or you may think that what we have now is akin to a good old fashioned state fair on steroids for the TV business that really does need some heavy-duty renovation.  Alternatively, you may feel it's time for the upfront to ride off into the sunset, leaving behind a few discarded BlackBerrys and some expense claims blowing down Madison Avenue -- to be replaced by nothing in particular.

Go on -- reinvent the future.  Unbundle the upfront and unveil the unfront.



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