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Online Media Players Gun for TV’s Lost Viewers at NewFronts

Online video is still the plucky, punkish younger cousin to TV’s rich uncle. But digital entertainment now has a firm seat at the big kids’ table on Madison Avenue.

A diverse lineup of media players will tout new projects and initiatives to try to win the business of ad buyers and brand marketers at the 2016 Digital Content NewFronts, the industry’s version of the television upfront season, which runs May 2-13 in New York. Officially in its fifth year, the IAB-managed series of presentations will feature 38 companies (up from 34 last year) along with unofficial piggybacking events hosted by CAA, UTA and others.

“In the old days, it was kind of a sideshow,” says Pete Stein, head of Fullscreen’s brand group. “Now it’s center stage.”

In addition to mainstays like YouTube, AOL and Hulu, presenters new on the NewFronts schedule this year include AwesomenessTV, Turner’s CNN, Activision Blizzard, Mashable, Hearst, Playboy, NowThisNews, Woven Digital and SheKnows Media. “I feel like we are finally at a point where the TV money is tipping to online video — that’s why it’s important for us to be there,” says AwesomenessTV CEO Brian Robbins.

Digital video has grown in stature among media buyers, who today see the segment as more critical than ever to reach younger audiences, who watch less TV. Indeed, YouTube was ranked as the most important outlet by agency and ad execs for TV and video media buying — ahead of ESPN — with Hulu, Vice Media and AOL in the top 10, according to a survey by MyersBizNet.

At YouTube’s Brandcast event May 5, the company will highlight internal research that shows its punching power relative to TV. For example, in the U.S., 44% of YouTube viewers aged 18-49 do not watch primetime broadcast TV in an average week. “We are seeing the combination of success clients are having on YouTube, and the challenges they are having in getting [gross rating points] on television,” says Tara Walpert Levy, managing director of agency solutions for Google and YouTube.

Time spent watching traditional TV by consumers 18-24 has dropped roughly 34% between 2011 and 2015, according to Nielsen figures. “Those viewers are getting content and being entertained in other ways,” says Condé Nast Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff, who will show off a slate of millennial-focused programming at the CNE presentation.

And, as the NewFronts promise to abundantly illustrate, TV will be facing even more competition for eyeballs — and ad dollars — from the online-video realm. Time Inc., which has built a 5,000-square-foot studio space at its new lower Manhattan HQ to boost video production, will unveil an over-the-top video service with longer-form, lean-back programming that company execs have said will draw from People and Entertainment Weekly.

But the NewFronts just aren’t in the same league as the TV upfronts. “Very little money moves as a result of the NewFronts,” says GroupM head of digital investment Jon Hsia. The presentations are important for advertisers to understand how to target specific audiences on digital platforms, “but there’s no season for buying digital inventory.”

For Hulu, the NewFronts song-and-dance actually is like an upfront, according to senior VP of sales Peter Naylor. Hulu positions itself as a TV network that just happens to be distributed online. “We’re the first alternative to broadcast and cable,” Naylor says. “Today’s TV media plans have reached a ceiling … and we represent a way to extend and reassemble some of those lost ratings.”

Amid the NewFronts noise are parties, but not the huge, splashy affairs of years past. Disney’s Maker Studios and Yahoo are each holding private events for brands and agencies, scaled down from their former razzle-dazzle. Yahoo is keeping a low profile in general, given its recent retrenchment on content — and possible sale.

Apart from the festivities and possible deal-making, there’s plenty of value in the NewFronts as a chance to educate the market on the power of digital influencers and content produced specifically for Internet platforms. “Everyone under the age of 30 gets what we’re doing,” says Reza Izad, head of Americas for Studio71. “People over 30 intellectualize it but still don’t fully get it.”

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