Advertisers are getting mixed signals about what constitutes TV.
The medium once was represented largely by the Big Three, but is fast becoming (with apologies to Thomas Hardy) the Madding Crowd.
Our children and grandchildren will never know a time when television consisted of ABC, CBS and NBC, with a few local stations thrown in for good measure. The industry jeered in the 1980s, when News Corp.came along with what was considered a bold, quixotic move in launching a fourth network — Fox. (Though none of the rivals are laughing now, we suspect Rupert Murdoch wouldn’t attempt the same stunt in today’s media climate). It has become clear that marketers aren’t always envisioning the TV set when they figure out how to use motion-and-sound video to hawk their wares. TV’s biggest strength, the transmission of moving video to a national audience, has been usurped.
As a result, never before has the road to the upfront — that annual spring ritual in which the broadcast networks and their cable counterparts attempt to sell most of their ad inventory — been so crowded with interlopers. Just last week, word broke that Big Digital (that’s Microsoft, Hulu, Google’s YouTube, AOL and Yahoo) would attempt to stage its own confab with advertisers just weeks before the biggest TV networks do.
This isn’t the craziest endeavor. Yahoo has staged a similar event intermittently for years. But the combined heft of the participants tells us that nontraditional video concerns sense advertisers want — maybe even need — to spend on more than boob-tube advertising to get the job done.
It’s not hard to lump digital players who stream video into the “new TV” mix. But other, even less traditional combatants are trying to storm the arena. Cinema-advertising company NCM Media Networks is staging its own sales pitch on the Wednesday of Upfront Week — typically the same day CBS and Time Warner‘s Turner are in the spotlight. NCM will make the point that when TV viewership drops over the weekend, the movie screen deserves some consideration when trying to put an ad in front of a hard-to-reach 18-to-49er.
If video’s leap from living-room screen to other flat panels hadn’t been clear, it is now. The fog has lifted: Yes, it’s true that traditional TV continues to lure the biggest audiences, as with the Super Bowl broadcast on NBC. But it’s also true that more of what broadcast TV has to offer doesn’t strike the same chord it did two decades ago. Let’s be honest: If ABC aired “Love Boat” on Saturday nights today, it would probably do about as well as “Hart of Dixie.”
While following the video is a concept that’s pretty simple, the act of purchasing the video for commercials has only grown more complex.
In addition to the attempt by Turner and ESPN to plant the cable flag during the traditional “broadcast” portion of the upfront presentations, NBC Universal’s USA is taking over Thursday night. In past years, the CW’s Thursday-morning presentation usually tied a bow on the annual proceedings. Spanish-language TV is also rocking the boat, with Univision making its presentation much earlier than usual this year , holding forth on what has usually been ABC’s day.
Onetime TV advertisers will be assaulted on all sides. Video may be everywhere, but as a result, so are sales pitches.
Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.