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NewFronts, Old Test: Diverting TV Dollars

Digital content showcase returns in attempt to win over advertisers

In one packed schmooze-and-booze New York week, digital media purveyors will try to dazzle Madison Avenue with new Internet shows, apps and ad executions.

The goal of the second annual Digital Content NewFronts: To convince ad buyers that there’s a big (and growing) audience for high-quality content on Internet and mobile screens, and that they should drop coin now to lock sponsorship deals.

How much check-writing will flow out of the events is questionable. Ad agency Universal McCann predicted NewFronts deals could approach $1 billion. But that seems like a stretch, given that online video ad revenue totaled $1.3 billion in all of 2012, according to Pivotal Research. Meanwhile, TV will still be king of video ad budgets for years to come, with broadcast primetime alone securing about $9 billion per upfront season.

But while the NewFronts are better organized than for their first outing last year — and presenting companies are teeing up more originals than ever — some in the advertising biz still see the confab as a publicity stunt that won’t ring the register the way the TV upfronts do.

“The NewFronts are basically a loud sideshow,” said Pivotal Research’s Brian Wieser. “There’s no reason for them, except for fun.”

TV advertising inventory is scarce, which is why networks engage in upfront negotiations to cut the most lucrative pacts they can. In
the digital world, ad space is virtually infinite, which means buyers have no reason to make a decision upfront, according to Wieser: “Nobody wants to commit to anything they don’t have to.”

Players on the NewFronts stage, however, argue that there actually is scarce inventory for top-drawer online programming. “There’s a lot of volume on the Internet, but brands are finding they want to associate with premium brands,” said Eric Berger, executive VP of digital networks at Sony Pictures Television.

Crackle, SPT’s young-male-skewed online net, is a NewFronts newbie. Berger will tubthump six series, including a 24-episode order for Jerry Seinfeld’s shortform “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” which is set for another season.

This year’s NewFronts, stretching from April 29 to May 3, was coordinated by trade group Interactive Advertising Bureau on behalf of founding partners Digitas, AOL, Google/YouTube, Hulu, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The week will feature pitches from those companies and 12
others, including CBS Interactive, Disney, Univision Communications and Vevo.

Joining the party will be old-school publishers the Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast Entertainment, which are trying to build digital empires from their print fiefdoms. (SpinMedia, the music and entertainment blog network formerly known as Buzzmedia, canceled
its plans to present; its rep said “our priorities have shifted.”)

The key difference for NewFronts 2013 is that everyone has had more prep time. With just seven weeks ahead of last year’s events, companies weren’t prepared to fully support what they were selling, said John McCarus, Digitas senior VP and practice lead of brand content. “With the extra time, you’ll see lots of new content, ideas and ways to activate it.”

McCarus predicted upward of 10,000 bizzers will fl ock to the NewFronts.

But as advertisers look at trying to expand digital reach, they’re starting to become believers that they need to lock in buys, according to Michael Wolf, managing director at media consultancy Activate and a former MTV Networks prexy who is on Yahoo’s board. That said, Wolf acknowledged that buying cycles for TV and online are very different.

“The best way to think about digital is it’s a scatter market 24 hours a day,” he said. “The NewFronts are about exposing advertisers to new opportunities.”

More than just replicating TV in digital channels, media companies are looking to bait marketers with new ways to connect with consumers in ways they can’t on TV alone. The buzzword here is “transmedia,” meaning content — and ads — that span multiple screens with video as the anchor.

“Everything we do in video needs to be accompanied by a mobile extension, and to provide an opportunity for our (users) to be storytellers,” said Brooke Chaffin, senior VP of Disney Interactive Family. The Internet strategy many media companies pursued was to create shorter forms of television. “What we all missed was we did not focus on interactive.”

Disney Interactive’s NewFronts slate of 10 new pure-digital video series will extend across multiple platforms, and the Mouse House will roll out new “lifestyle apps” and mobile games as well. “We are building shows around digital natives,” Chaffin said.

NewFronts may be mainly a hanger-on, an effort to draft off the peloton of the broadcast and cable upfront season. But ad execs say it’s smart to spur marketers to consider digital outlets as part of their overall media mix.

“I don’t know that people will ‘commit’ because of the NewFronts, but it does help in letting them know there are alternatives,” said Dani Benowitz, managing partner of integrated investment for Universal McCann.
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