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TV Goes Nerdy and Digital Goes Glam

As the annual TV upfronts and NewFronts approach, the lines between traditional TV players and new digital video players is quickly becoming indistinguishable.

It’s that time again. The television upfronts — where broadcast and cable networks received 50 percent to 70 percent of last year’s ad revenue, and the digital NewFronts — the industry’s showcase for digital video. Now long-standing traditions, the upfronts date back more than 50 years to 1962, and the NewFronts are approaching a 10-year anniversary after first rolling out in 2008.

Over the years, we’ve grown to expect certain standards from participants in the “fronts.” The television networks used the upfronts to roll out their biggest stars and must-see programming of the new season. The digital players, while traditionally lacking the big “star power,” dazzled us in their own way — with innovative data, targeting and audience insights.

But one has to ask: In an industry that is undergoing so much change, shouldn’t these events change too?

Yes and no. In terms of relevancy, these events aren’t going anywhere. The concept of upfront buying and the surrounding “pre-sell” is still a crucial element of advertising strategy. Despite the rise in programmatic technologies, TV and premium video is still scarce, and demand is still high. With high scarcity and high demand comes the need for guarantees. Advertisers want to know they’re getting what they need.

But in terms of the events themselves, we are likely to see some significant changes this year in what upfront and NewFront participants bring to the show floor. These changes will be driven by two trends impacting the entire industry, namely the proliferation of data activation across screens and the increase in new content distribution channels. So this year, expect to see the upfront participants try to out-dazzle each other with shiny new applications of data while the NewFront participants flash their content and star power.

A role reversal

Here’s why. Advances in technology and content delivery — from apps to OTT to mobile devices — have made the delineation between TV and video increasingly blurred. As a result, TV is beginning to embrace and gain access to what has traditionally made digital so powerful — the application of precise data segmenting and measurement.

Stated differently, the broadcast and cable networks have gone nerdy. TV buyers can now apply massive data sets to their strategy — understanding much more about a consumer than the traditional “age and gender” demographics.

Conversely, with evolving distribution channels like online platforms and OTT delivery, there’s a whole new world of opportunity for delivering premium original content to consumers. So NewFront players like Hulu and BuzzFeed are now squarely in the video production business, while other digital players like Amazon and Netflix took home a combined 46 nominations for the 2015 Emmys.

Data and distribution

To be clear about the aforementioned “role reversal,” the fact that digital players are putting emphasis on their shiny new content does not mean they’ve lost the ability to provide excellent data, and the fact that networks are embracing more data does not mean they’ve lost the ability to produce excellent content.

These changes simply highlight the much larger trend of video convergence. The lines between tradition TV players and new digital video players is quickly becoming indistinguishable. Apps now allow us to stream “digital” content to the big screen in our living room. TV Everywhere programs let us watch “linear” content on our smartphones, computers and tablets. To consumers, there’s virtually no difference. And increasingly the industry is starting to agree.

Though the upfronts and NewFronts may still be divided, there are myriad efforts to try to tie together the various devices on which consumers are viewing contact. Data providers like TV-ratings powerhouse Nielsen — and now digital-ratings powerhouse comScore — have recognized the need for unified measurement and insights across all screens. Moreover, MVPDs and telcos — with access to the data “pipes” spanning online, TV and mobile — are able to bring new levels of cross-screen audience insight to media planning and buying that were never before available.

Taken to the next level, marrying this cross-screen measurement with offline purchase data from sources like Kantar ShopCom or J.D. Power then allows advertisers to measure the actual value of that advertising to drive real-world results.

Nerd or not, that’s something to make even the most jaded marketer take notice. While some have said there’s a resurgence of the “Golden Age of Television” from a content perspective — spurred by the diversity of new voices brought about by the proliferation of distribution outlets — it’s also becoming the “Golden Age of Television Advertising.” In the latter case, the new gold is data — bringing a new level of insight into who is seeing an ad and if it’s working.

Full-frontal movement

There is still work to be done before all upfront planning and buying can be carried out holistically across both video and TV in all its manifestations. There are technological limitations to overcome, and business models that must evolve. But it’s happening, and quickly. And it must. The need to reach consumers, regardless of what they’re watching and how they’re watching it, is real.

This upfront season, the role reversals we’ll see are signs of another step in our evolution to “full frontal” advertising, where the distinctions between the upfronts and NewFronts become undistinguishable.

Scott Ferber has spent his career utilizing mathematics and data analysis to build profitable businesses and products. With the goal of bringing the accountability of digital media to the expanding video space, he founded Videology in 2007. Its video advertising solutions platform is now used by some of the world’s largest marketers and media agencies to connect brands with their targeted consumers. Reach him @VideologyGroup.

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