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TV Shows Take a Back Seat as Upfronts Focus on New Ad Tech

Analysis: Madison Avenue's new demands have prompted the networks to talk more about impressions and algorithms, and less about their actual programming

NBCUNIVERSAL UPFRONT EVENTS -- 2022 NBCUniversal
Eric Liebowitz/NBCUniversal

TV used to be about shows. Now, based on many of the industry’s glitzy upfront presentations that took place this week, it’s all about algorithms.

At show after show, NBCUniversal, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Univision and The CW spent time hawking new scripted comedies and dramas; unscripted series; lots of sports; and even movies. But in many cases, the availability of the categories seemed more important than the programing that filled them. How many standout series can you name from any specific network this year?

There’s a reason why the networks have made such a shift. As TV’s once gigantic time-and-date audiences splinter among dozens of new-tech viewing opportunities, the crowds that watch shows at any one moment have gotten smaller. That forces Madison Avenue to stitch together groups of consumers a little at a time — a Hulu binge here, a 10 p.m. watch there. Rather than attach themselves to particular programs, however, the advertisers are trying to connect with their consumers by identifying types. McDonald’s might want to knit a string of young men between the ages of 18 and 34. Procter & Gamble needs women between 25 and 54 in households that command a certain level of income. General Motors no doubt hopes to reach young consumers in the market for electric vehicles.

Not too long ago, all the marketers could find just what they wanted by plunking down some money for TV ads. Now, armed with data about their most likely customer, they are telling media outlets to run their commercials based on so-called “programmatic” technology that will insert the ad during a particular household’s streaming session or FAST watch, all according to the type of customer they need to entice. Yes, the networks still show TV at specific times of day, and support those shows with ads aimed at reaching broader viewership. But even in those cases, the networks are experimenting with addressable technology that might send a car commercial to one set of households and spots for beef stew to another.

In this sort of world, specific shows don’t matter as much anymore.

TV seems to have realized this. Fox, for example, didn’t release a weekly linear schedule. Even Paramount Global, home to CBS, which for years made the unveiling of its primetime grid an annual breakfast event, only gave a few seconds of time to showcasing it (the breakfast, a mainstay event under the aegis of former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, has not returned post-pandemic).

Instead, upfront attendees heard a lot about broader format categories; large media portfolios; and putting content where it can be consumed at a viewer’s leisure. The result: The networks seemed like they were trying to prove they had sheer tonnage more than they did sustainable programming concepts. When you’re trying to match an advertiser’s algorithm, after all, it helps to show you can throw up a lot of content to catch it. In a world where Netflix often spends millions on tentpole concepts and then scraps them on a dime (“Jupiter’s Legacy” anyone?), why try to prove you’ve got durable vehicles that will be around for multiple seasons? NBC doesn’t need “Night Court” to last 10 seasons to make it into several rounds of syndication. It just needs a few more hours of viewing that can keep an audience around long enough to see a couple of pre-rolls on Peacock.

To be sure, some companies did hew somewhat to tradition. The CW spent a good chunk of its Thursday upfront time laying out the groundwork for shows like “Walker: Independence” and “The Winchesters,” both of which have ties to properties already burnished by the network. And Disney spent time in a showcase crowded with ESPN sports and Marvel properties to talk about “Reasonable Doubt,” a new drama executive produced in part by Kerry Washington that is bound for Hulu.

In an industry whose success rate at launching new series has never risen higher than 20% to 25%, however, there seems to be less reason to take a gamble on new stuff. Both NBC and CBS are devoting at least one day on their schedules to what are essentially takeovers by a single programming concept. At NBC, one night has been given over to Dick Wolf’s Chicago programs, and another to his “Law & Order” dramas. At CBS, Wolf gets a night for various “FBI” series. The maneuver is linear TV’s effort to match the binge-viewing that has become so much a part of streaming. Viewers can “set it and forget it” and get three hours of stuff with which they are familiar, while becoming part of a defined crowd that may not be as big as it once was, but likely has enough commonality to be worth an efficiency-minded advertiser’s time.

And some networks recognize their revenue is likely to come from new activities. NBCU, for example, appeared to devote a solid chunk of time to a bacchanal scene featuring the stars of its Bravo cable network touting its BravoCon, a three-day fan event that is meant, among other things, to spur Bravo aficionados to shop for goods inspired by their favorite show influencers. The spotlight on the event indicates NBC has high hopes in what is still a nascent e-commerce business, but over time could generate new kinds of cash flow, as well as connections with a bevy of advertisers that might not otherwise seek out TV as a mainstay promotional vehicle.

The networks might want to be careful not to leave cash on the table. There are good reasons for advertisers to sink their hooks into one show or another. ABC, for example, found great success weaving different marketers into the comedy “Black-ish” over the life of the program. The trick, says Jerry Daniello, senior vice president of entertainment brand solutions for Disney Advertising Sales, was the show’s premise of a lead character who worked at an ad agency. That nuance allowed writers and producers to depict characters working on assignments for General Motors, State Farm and Microsoft, among others, without seeming like they were forcing ad messages into the plot. Disney was even able to funnel interest in the show to its spinoff, “Grown-ish,” says Daniello, and create alliances that stretched from ABC to cable sister Freeform, where “Grown-ish” airs.

But even those days may be fading. The networks and their digital rivals are placing more emphasis on ad formats for streaming viewers, such as a “frame ad” from NBCU that can surround programming on Peacock, or new “virtual” product placement from Amazon Prime that sets up an advertiser’s latest gizmo or deodorant on screen without having to worry about dovetailing with a particular plot or storyline.

It would be silly to decree that stories don’t matter, that actors don’t matter or that showrunners don’t matter. Yet the new reliance on streaming is changing the infrastructure of the business, and when revenue is increasingly made by milking a single subscriber’s binge-watch with just a handful of targeted ad pitches, the networks sees to be racing to capture new money while leaving some of their old business concepts in the same place that houses quickly canceled series like “Lone Star,” “Viva Laughlin” and “Animal Practice.”

Don’t jettison everything. The traditional TV business, after all, still nabs millions of dollars in revenue each year. And those old shows might be taken off the dustbin and used to create a new FAST channel that will generate the streaming impressions Madison Avenue so desperately craves.