Battle for the Screens: Why TV Told Madison Avenue to Ditch Digital

Analysis: For years, TV and digital battled for ad dollars. Now TV is getting more skilled with streaming video and mobile devices

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The world has become so dependent on social media and smartphone screens that it would seem the height of foolishness to tell advertisers not to worry about such things. The owners of the nation’s biggest TV networks did just that this week – and it’s not as silly as it sounds.

When it comes to digital, “the bloom is off the rose,” Leslie Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS Corp., told reporters early Wednesday, part of an annual parade of meetings known in the industry as the annual “upfront” market, when TV networks try to sell the bulk of their advertising. Toby Byrne, Fox’s top ad-sales executive had the temerity to suggest that pre-roll ads and other streaming promotions were nothing more than “subprime video”- a phrase that conjures the image of the underwater mortgages that were so much a part of this nation’s last major recession. “In our world, a view is 30 seconds – not three,” cautioned Donna Speciale, ad sales chief at Time Warner’s Turner, nodding to growing concerns that marketers have about “viewability” of short online ads.

TV executives still talk about YouTube impressions, retweets and Facebook likes, so why throw shade? Simply put, TV is no longer just a phenomenon borne from a stationary screen in the living room. Over the last few years, TV has become digital – particularly broadcast, which need not insist upon viewers “authenticating” a subscription to Comcast or DirecTV before settling down to watch “Arrow” or “Chicago Fire” on an iPad.  At the same time, digital is trying to become more like TV, and not always finding similar success.

Digital media is growing up, and the gains it made in its early days may be harder to match. Global digital advertising is seen growing 15.7% in 2016, according to March data from ad-buying group Publicis Media. And more money will be spent on digital than TV globally by 2017, the report said. Even so, it noted, “Internet advertising’s growth rate is slowing as it matures.” The medium has also come under more intense scrutiny from advertisers, who fret about everything from click fraud to ad blocking.

“Digital isn’t going away,” said David Levy, president of Turner, in an interview, but its ability to capture the mass audiences coveted by Madison Avenue heavyweights like Procter & Gamble, Verizon and Apple is in doubt. More than 800,000 viewers recently stopped by Buzzfeed to watch a video of some of its employees using rubber bands to explode a watermelon, a moment suggesting that media’s newer entrants can get the mass that will please advertisers like Subway or Coca-Cola.  “One 30-second ad on TNT could reach all of that,” Levy scoffed.

And more often, TV companies are growing more digitally savvy. For years, TV and digital sparred with each other over advertising revenue, but in 2016, the two are more alike than different. Fox offers to let viewers stream “New Girl” or “Bones” with fewer ads or even no ads online, while CW plans to expand a streaming-video app to new venues. CBS streams a live news feed to broadband that is supported by advertising. Meanwhile, Yahoo appears to be on the precipice of being sold. AOL has been gobbled up by Verizon. Vice, Vox, and Buzzfeed are all owned in part by big media companies like NBCUniversal, Walt Disney and 21st Century Fox. One of the more viable outlets, Hulu, is owned by those three companies outright.

TV has in recent years worked to gain some of the data, analytics and audience targeting that lent digital media so much appeal. Digital outlets, however, have found it more difficult to gain what TV has: high-quality video that notches big audiences who will still – given the right circumstances – all tune in at about the same time.  You hear a lot about YouTube touting its reach among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 – the sweet spot on Madison Avenue – but how many people all click on the same short YouTube video at the exact moment someone else does?

Ad buyers routinely visit a series of “NewFronts” held by digital players each year, and the feedback after every annual session is often the same. There’s little follow-up on what actually gets streamed, or what kind of viewership it captured. Much of what is pitched hinges on the media company securing a sponsor before the series is actually completed. It’s true, Vice has made headway in programming, but it seems to be the exception rather than the rule. And it, too, has turned to TV.

Consumers aren’t going to give up their smartphones and Twitter feeds. They are more likely to turn to a mobile screen at any second than run to a TV set when they need information immediately. But what if the content they turned to on TV, desktop, mobile phone or broadband connection was owned by CBS or ABC and their corporate parents? TV and digital continue to be locked in a tug of war, but for this year at least, TV has its grip on a little more of the rope.