2022 Advertising Upfronts: Four Fast Takeaways

MAY 19, 2022

After a two-year Covid-19 hiatus, the formal advertising upfronts returned this week to a variety of New York stages. The music was great, a lot of the jokes were bad, a lot of faces were familiar, and the usual lineup of NBC, ABC, Fox FOXA -0.6% and CBS formally expanded to include new media powerhouse Warner Bros. Discovery WBD +0.1%. What did we learn from this? Here is one man’s takeaway from a whole lot of “storytelling” – and yes, I’m ready for a thesaurus on that new/old saw.

What disruption? It’s still show business

My former boss during my NBC days used to growl when he heard anyone complain: “Hey, at least it ain’t the insurance business.” With all due respect to our actuarial friends, we all knew what he meant – despite relentless competition and disruptive challenges in technology, we felt lucky to be part of a business for which we felt a genuine affection.

David Zaslav, acknowledging the enormity of his first upfront as CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, even gave the proceedings some historical linkage with a paean to the Jewish immigrants from Poland who founded Warner Bros. and other larger than life figures that paved the show biz yellow-brick road such as CNN’s founder Ted Turner and super dealmaker Steve Ross. These guys didn’t go to the Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel to sell insurance.

There are plenty of forces pushing change on the media business, and rightfully so. Consumers are voting with their pocketbook to cancel bloated, highly priced cable packages, young viewers’ attentions are being stolen by 30-second TikTok dances, and the old Nielsen scorecard doesn’t do much to tell you the score anymore. As Seth Myers joked at the NBCUniversal presentation, “we need to be forward-looking, agile and inventive – but we’re doing upfronts the same way we’ve always done them!” Exactly. And for this week at least, that was kind of the point.

Linear networks can still be a brand – but you have to work it

When you’re chatting with friends about what they are watching these days, I’m pretty sure nobody is raving about what network they’re watching. For a multichannel universe that created iconic brands such as ESPN, HBO, Discovery, and TNT, that’s a sobering shift. The entertainment brands driving conversations today are almost always the shows – Squid Game, Yellowstone, The Mandalorian, Succession, and dozens more.

Consumers wade through a maze of heavily marketed subscription streaming services from Disney+ to HBO Max to Hulu to Peacock to rising ad-supported services such as Paramount’s PARA +1.8% Pluto TV and Fox’s Tubi. On top of the flood of legacy networks still running 24/7, viewers are often engaging in a Where’s Waldo exercise to find that show that their best friend can’t believe they haven’t watched yet. Where does that leave traditional networks? Do their brands still matter?

The upfronts demonstrated a few useful examples of how you brand a legacy network. The broadcast networks have always sought to be all things to all people, but that’s an almost impossible task in our fragmented marketplace. Yet Fox managed to cut through this with its emphasis on a couple of new, Fox-typical irreverent animated shows starring Jon Hamm (Grimsburg) and Hannah Waddingham (Krapopolis). The Fox network, as the long-standing home of The Simpsons, can lay a very legitimate claim to being a welcoming home for unique adult-focused animation comedy.

Somewhat surprisingly, the most joyous part of the entire NBCU upfront was a celebration of “BravoCon,” a planned fall live event celebrating Bravo’s whacky off beat programming. Bravo has been around 1980, originally associated with high-end art films and edgy fare you wouldn’t find on broadcast TV. Over time it morphed into an almost bewildering mix of reality programming including the Real Housewives franchise, Summer House, Below Deck and a lot of Andy Cohen. Yet in a single upfront presentation you saw a vision tying together disparate individual shows and making it all feel a part of something bigger. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t have to be – it makes sense.

By comparison, you could have gone through the week without understanding at all what Disney’s Freeform, NBCUniversal’s USA, and a host of legacy networks stand for today. The upfronts showed that branding does work – if you work it.

“Reaching isn’t connecting” – but what’s connecting?

This is a quote from Donna Speciale, President of U.S. Ad Sales and Marketing for TelevisaUnivision, making the case to advertisers to get beyond the commoditized game of putting TV ads in front of as many people as possible as frequently as possible. But traditional broadcast and cable networks – other than for live sports – are grappling with falling ratings and the need to lessen ad loads to hold onto the viewers that remain. As NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery noted in their presentations, lessening the ad load on TV and streaming is a key selling point. But how can networks make more out of less?

You can only charge more to reach fewer viewers for so long. As Speciale highlights, advertisers should be looking for the places to spend their money where the quality of the connection with audiences justifies a higher price than the generic market availabilities. The problem right now is…how do I know when really connecting and who can be most helpful for me to make one?

The declining dominance of Nielsen as the central media buying currency turns part of the upfronts into a pitch for a host of new data measurement frameworks, from Paramount’s EyeQ and Vantage (what’s the difference?) to NBCU’s One Platform to Disney’s Luminate (is that still a thing?). Every one of these innovations has each company “grading its own homework” in a vacuum. But advertisers are buying from every one of these companies simultaneously. Without a common understanding of which of these platforms is specifically driving sales for an advertiser, marketers are left little better off than in the days of John Wanamaker (“I know 50% of my advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which 50%”). The industry has a long way to go here.

Music drives a message – intended or not

Music provided a terrific enhancement to the environment for all the live upfront environments, from the best “walk-up” music at TelevisaUnivision to the duet of Lee Ann Rimes and Mickey Guyton at Paramount. But only Miley Cyrus at NBCU delivered a meta-message in her music. She rolled from her mega hit “Wrecking Ball” right into Madonna’s iconic “Like a Prayer.” For an industry that needs to take a metaphorical wrecking ball to its old ways of doing business while praying that they can keep old and new businesses humming simultaneously, no power point side could tell the story any better.

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Howard Homonoff

Howard Homonoff


Howard Homonoff is an expert in driving growth in traditional and digital media companies.