TV Upfronts 2022: Top Takeaways From a Week Like No Other
The 2022 TV Upfronts came in to New York City like a wrecking ball, and we’re not just referring to what Miley Cyrus belted out at the NBCUniversal festivities at Radio City Music Hall. Back in-person for the first time since 2019, this year’s presentations cumulatively tore down any remaining vestiges of how television has traditionally been programmed, consumed and transacted. By the end of a busy week of pitches and performances, star power and snarky stand-up, tacos and tiny burgers, it was clear to advertisers and other attendees that TV is not only more meaningful than ever, but that “TV” means more than ever.
Here are our top takeaways from an upfront week like no other:
Prime Time Is a State of Mind
For decades, the upfronts were organized around the suspenseful unveiling of each broadcast network’s fall and midseason prime-time schedules, with preview reels and sometimes entire pilots lovingly packaged up and presented to the oohs and ahs of guests (and the cheers and jeers of the consumer press). But this year, with most networks’ hosting duties taken over by their parent media conglomerates, the exact days and times any new or returning series would actually air seemed like an afterthought. As Variety reported, “ABC, NBC and Fox didn’t mention their fall schedules at all — and actually, in an upfront first, Fox didn’t even have a schedule ready to share.” Forget about pilot season – TV’s development cycle is 52 weeks as the classic ebbs and flows of the industry’s calendar year recede in the rear-view. “If a year-round development cycle sounds familiar, it should: It’s the same approach that basic cable networks like FX and streamers including Netflix and their rivals have used since entering the scripted-originals business,” noted The Hollywood Reporter.
Linear Stays in the Game(s)
Appointment viewing on broadcast or cable television used to be about the latest episode of a must-see scripted comedy or drama. Nowadays, substantial live viewership on linear is about sports – full stop. No other TV programming can reach as massive an audience in a specific time period like the most popular sports can. So it’s no wonder Disney spent a substantial portion of its upfront presentation touting ESPN (a once-linear-only brand increasingly focused on its subscription streaming service) as well as its commitment to Dwayne Johnson’s rebooted XFL (airing on Disney’s ABC and FX as well as ESPN) among other leagues. At the Warner Bros. Discovery event, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal traded quips with his on-air co-host Charles Barkley, who’ve both seen their TNT cable network become synonymous with the NBA. Meanwhile, Fox devoted the majority of its upfront to sports programming like the Super Bowl, the NFL Playoffs and the FIFA World Cup – the latter to be showcased on Fox’s broadcast network, on its cable network FS1 and on its free ad-supported streaming service Tubi. To paraphrase a baseball legend, sports is the straw that stirs the drink for linear TV – and increasingly, connected TV is suiting up for action too.
Everything Is TV
The opportunity to gawk at Hollywood’s brightest on stage (and even rub shoulders with them at after-parties) has been a staple of upfronts through the years, but in 2022, celebrity guests and presenters included not only veteran TV stars but also the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson and Susan Sarandon – movie icons promoting CTV projects at a time when the distinctions between television and film have been rendered almost irrelevant by viewers and advertisers alike thanks to the explosion of AVOD services, as represented at every upfront presentation. Whether it’s a broadcast comedy, a cable reality show, a CTV limited series or a streaming movie with ad breaks, this year’s upfronts affirmed that it’s all content, whether you call it “TV” or not. Norma Desmond may have famously declared in Sunset Boulevard that “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small,” but for advertisers, the screens for their creative messaging have never been larger, the programming choices never more premium, and the audiences never more plentiful.
In the weeks, if not months, leading up to this May’s Upfronts, no trend generated more trade press coverage and industry commentary than the yearning for new audience measurements and media currencies to serve as alternatives to ratings stalwart Nielsen. Seemingly every major media company announced its plan to test out a new partner (or two or three) for national ad buys this year. And then the lights dimmed and the Upfront presentations actually rolled out and, as Advertising Age put it: “Measurement and alternative currencies were expected to be hot topics during the upfronts this year. But that’s not how things played out.” To be sure, these new initiatives were mentioned by NBCUniversal, Disney and Paramount, but the fact remained that the vast majority of upfront deals were once again going to be guaranteed on Nielsen ratings.
So why all the hype beforehand? Certainly genuine frustration with Nielsen among some; perhaps well-intentioned exuberance for the newest shiny objects; the natural need for a fresh angle on an old story. Or, more simply, Ad Age reported, “As marketers and agencies test [alternatives to Nielsen], they are learning that audience numbers are all over the place among different vendors and sometimes vary significantly from week to week at the same vendors.”
With the economy on eggshells and billions in ad spend at stake, it’s understandable that buyers and sellers alike would hedge their bets and gravitate back towards the tried and true – but at the same time, secondary measurements (emphasis on the secondary) will continue to gather momentum, even as Nielsen refines its own products for future relevancy. “A year from now, we’ll be in a better place, with the alternative players having seen the data and made whatever methodological adjustments they need to,” Howard Shimmel, head of strategy for predictive analytics firm DatafuelX and former Turner Broadcasting head of research, told Ad Age.
As we noted in our preview of the 2022 Upfronts, the last time this May event was held in person, Disney+, Peacock and HBO Max didn’t even exist. Paramount+ wasn’t launched until a couple of months before last year’s virtual affair, and Warner Bros. Discovery is, of course, a new powerhouse of a combined entity this year. It’s still early days in terms of these companies ensuring advertisers full audience reach within their respective ecosystems, but with more ad-supported CTV platforms and services available than ever before, cross-channel TV was nevertheless the new normal during Upfronts – albeit dialed up or down in prominence based on the audience profile of the respective media companies.
Aside from its lengthy promotion of ESPN, Disney for example focused its programming announcements primarily on Hulu and their eponymous streamer with its multiverse of franchises. Fox devoted a significant chunk of time to Tubi. NBCUniversal spent about half its stage time on Peacock, whose original scripted programming garnered the most audible (positive) reaction from the crowd. Paramount Global dedicated more time to broadcasting than other presenters did, but given CBS’ relatively older, procedural-loving viewers, that made perfect sense – though Paramount+ certainly also received attention, not surprising given the enormous success of Yellowstone and its spin-offs on both cable and streaming.
It’s all about finding the right balance between linear and CTV that works for each constituency: viewers, brands, investors – with the key being an acknowledgment that there must be a balance. After all, with over 60% of total viewership still generated by broadcast and cable, and with 70 million U.S. households regularly watching both linear and CTV, no national advertiser can afford to overlook a data-driven, cross-channel TV strategy that expands overall reach while driving incremental unique viewers on streaming.
Getting Together, Again
For almost as long as we’ve been attending Upfronts week in New York throughout the decades, there have been both presenters and attendees who’ve scoffed at the “dog and pony shows” and questioned the value of the stage spectacles, indulgent after-parties and millions of meet-and-greets. Jeff Zucker even proposed canceling the Upfront presentations in 2008, back when he was NBCUniversal’s chief executive. More recently, the persistence of COVID-19 and the widespread adoption of remote work, whether full-time or hybrid, has no doubt further fueled skepticism about the TV and ad industry’s largest mass gathering.
But ultimately, TV advertising is dependent upon TV, however it’s now defined, in all its sight, sound and motion glory – and these lavish presentations are a reminder of why this business exists in the first place: to entertain. But more than that, Upfronts are invaluable as a rationale for buyers and sellers to meet face to face, develop working relationships, ask and answer questions and, above all, establish mutual trust. As Ad Age noted, “in-person conversations allow for negotiation and disagreement that don’t always play well in Zoom-based settings.” At the end of the day (or the deal), handshakes are better in person. So are dinner and drinks. See you at Upfronts next year.
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