NewFronts or TV upfronts? Lines blur as digital publishers mature

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Author: Jeanne Poggi.  Source: AdAge

The themes of the 2019 Digital Content NewFronts all felt very familiar: Digital publishers spoke profusely about brand safety, original programming and scale.

They are the same themes that will likely dominate the upfronts later this month, when TV networks pitch their new programming and ad products to advertisers and media buyers, says Ben Winkler, chief transformation officer, OMD. “This is the first year those themes are going to match line-for-line," he says.

This could be the first indication the NewFronts have hit maturity, Winkler adds.

After years of trying to beat TV at its own game, it seems digital publishers finally realize the best way to compete for a slice of the $70 billion TV ad business isn’t solely with flashy, star-studded content that may never get made (and if it does, only lasts one season before disappearing into the internet abyss).

This year more publishers spoke about renewing existing shows, creating long-form content akin to TV and positioning themselves as the new “primetime.”

There was perhaps no greater indication of this blurring than one running joke at the onset of the week's events in New York City. With the NewFronts kicking off less than 12 hours after the third installment in the final season of “Game of Thrones,” presenters found any opportunity they could to reference the epic battle fans had long been anticipating.

“The army of the dead are at the wall, and we are still arguing among the houses,” Kristin Lemkau, chief marketing officer, JPMorgan Chase, said during a breakfast hosted by YouTube and MediaLink, in reference to tensions in the media world.

That the series airs on premium cable network HBO and stands in stark contrast to the user-generated content that has long been the symbol of digital video, was not lost on the crowd.

Focus on OTT
When the NewFronts first started in 2008, the conversation centered on how younger viewers were watching content in a vastly different manner than earlier generations – aka not on the living room screen but in more mobile environments. At the same time, traditional TV networks were still selling, well, TV.

But as more TV networks move into the over-the-top universe and package digital inventory alongside their linear programming, digital publishers have realized they too must connect into linear TV and OTT.

Meredith and Condé Nast both discussed their OTT services. Meredith’s PeopleTV has a new talk show, “Reality Check,” and is distributing the service through some of its local stations.

On the flip side, Viacom, the only traditional TV programmer to present during the week, is programming for digital outlets. It spent a chunk of its presentation promoting its recent $340 million acquisition of the free, ad-supported streaming service PlutoTV. The company is launching 15 new channels on the platform dedicated to content from its channels like MTV and Comedy Central. At Walmart's presentation for its streaming service Vudu, it announced that it would stream the reboot of Nickelodeon's "Blue's Clues" on Vudu before it airs on TV.

“Viacom is embracing digital inventory, and at the same time we see Condé and Meredith pushing themselves into the OTT universe," says Noah Mallin, head of content, experience and partnerships at Wavemaker. "They are starting to resemble each other more and more.”

Renewing, not replacing
Twitter and YouTube focused on renewing partnerships and continuing programs already on the platforms. In the past, digital publishers often talked up content that didn't last beyond one season, in contrast to TV's goal of creating lasting programming. YouTube announced season three of “Cobra Kai” and season two of Kevin Hart’s “What the Fit.”

Meanwhile, Twitter extended an affiliation with the National Football League and provided an update on a longstanding relationship with Viacom and MTV.

Not that digital players didn’t have any new offerings. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, launched the biggest news partnership with Twitter since Bloomberg’s Tic Toc debuted in 2017. YouTube is producing a new reality docu-series with Justin Bieber, and partnered with Tiffany Haddish for a new channel.

Conde Nast spoke about creating pilots for shows, a term used in TV but not often heard in digital.

The new primetime
Even the word “primetime,” a phrase long associated with things like broadcast’s must-see TV, was thrown around by several NewFront presenters.

YouTube is promoting its platform as “personal primetime,” slicing up audiences according to niche interests like cooking, dancing, makeup tutorials or fix-it shows.

“We can deliver personalized media in a way we never could before,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said during the company’s so-called Brandcast.

Condé Nast introduced new ad products that package its premium inventory and help brands integrate into its programming, as well as a deal with Nielsen to measure its content, in its effort to take on traditional TV.

“We are the new Thursday night and we are always on,” Pamela Drucker Mann, chief revenue and marketing officer, said during Condé’s presentation at Mercado Little Spain.

Safety first
Brand safety continues to be top-of-mind as YouTube spends another year trying to placate advertisers’ concerns over their messages appearing alongside controversial content. Other publishers once again took advantage of the opportunity to tout their platforms as a safe haven for brands.

While Condé Nast promoted its partnership with YouTube, in the same breath Drucker Mann acknowledged, “YouTube can sometimes be a little tricky.” But she insists Condé Nast is a different sort of YouTube publisher because it creates and controls all of the content, making it brand-safe.

Vice, which has dealt with its own perception problems in the marketplace following reports of internal mistreatment of women, took a different stance on brand safety.

The company announced it is unblocking words such as “gay,” “fat,” “Muslim” and “transgender” and called on advertisers to reconsider the standard brand-safety practice of blacklisting keywords like these in their media buys. It contends that blacklisting these words actually creates bias in the marketplace and restricts the company’s ability to monetize content that promotes diversity and inclusion.

“They have to walk a fine line,” Wavemaker's Mallin says. “They got noticed for their edginess, but edginess very quickly tips into ‘wow, I don’t want to be associated with that.' They need to get as much distance from their old leadership as possible.”

The over-arching sense of concern, however, isn’t stopping many brands from continuing to lean heavily into YouTube. Johnson & Johnson, one of the brands that removed its ads from the platform in 2017 over concerns that its brand may have appeared next to offensive content, said it increased its spend on the platform by 250 percent since 2015. Its largest digital investment ever was a recent Listerine campaign it ran on YouTube for its chewable tablets.

In addressing advertisers' concerns, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki kept it brief, vowing she and thousands of people at YouTube are "laser-focused" on fixing the problem. "I recognize that there is still work to be done, but we are committed to getting this right.”

Hulu gives a crash course
If there is one place where the lines between digital and TV seem to have been been erased entirely, it’s with Hulu.

The streaming service is being lauded for laying the groundwork for how to talk about its content in the context of premium TV, as well as for how to tackle advertising in OTT.

As the company looks to reduce its reliance on interruptive forms of advertising for revenue, it discussed how it is capping ad frequency and introducing new ad formats for the binge-watching experience.

“Hulu should open up a NewFront consultation business for other NewFronts,” OMD's Winkler says.