The upfront selling season is when broadcast networks sell the majority of their advertising inventory. That season kicks off this week as the networks present their fall schedules to advertisers in lavishly staged events. The networks have been losing viewers to online platforms steadily for years, particularly younger viewers in the coveted 18-49 demographic. Ad revenues have been slower to decline, but there is understandable concern that the loss will accelerate in response to increasingly dramatic ratings erosion. The buzz this year is that the networks are fighting back with strategies to retain those ad dollars.
First of all, the broadcasters are pointing out to the brands that online media are not always the most congenial platforms for their advertisements. Ads are placed on digital platforms primarily by automated programs, not humans. This has resulted in ads appearing next to content antithetical to a brand’s message, including videos promoting terrorism. Television spots, on the other hand, run alongside known content, produced to be advertiser-friendly.
The networks are also hoping to blunt one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of digital platforms: data. Television viewer data has been limited in the past to broad categories of age and gender. Using information available from cable and satellite providers, social media and other sources, the networks are offering much more detailed portraits of their viewership, enabling advertisers to target ad buys with greater precision.
Another growing trend is to schedule live event programs, such as last year’s Hairspray Live! These shows can generate a lot of publicity and excitement. Equally important, viewers can’t skip ads when watching TV live . For these reasons, NBC has announced plans to air Jesus Christ Superstar Live! next Easter, Fox is planning live broadcasts of Rent and A Christmas Story and ABC is reviving American Idol.
Some say these are rearguard actions against the inevitable decline of broadcast television in the new convergent universe. The broadcast networks are doing their best to prove the naysayers wrong.