Five Questions Facing NewFronts Digital Players From Hulu to YouTube

Apr 29 2014, 7:17am CDT | by

One of the oldest rituals in television, the “upfront” pitch to ad buyers, has gotten a few twists over recent years. In the errant reign of Ben Silverman at NBC, they were re-christened “in-fronts.” Weather Channel, given its scale across media platforms, has taken to calling it an “all-front.” And just this month, Sean Combs’ fledgling music network Revolt settled on the comprehensive-sounding “omni-front.”

But there is one spring banner that has gained a lot of legitimacy in the realm spanning digital brands and traditional TV: the NewFronts. That’s shorthand for the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Digital Content NewFronts, a series of two dozen presentations in New York by a lineup of heavy hitters — and a few up-and-comers — that will help influence the flow of an increasing pot of advertising investment. It still amounts to digital dimes, as they say, but well on its way to becoming full-fledged dollars. This is the fourth year of the NewFronts and total spending on digital ads has climbed toward the $3 billion mark, even if the digital sector remains a fraction of the total ad pie. As media spectacles, NewFront events have much in common with the tried-and-true staple of the broadcast and cable world: the traditional upfront, which usually combines Draper-esque ad mythos with corporate PowerPointing and a heavy dollop of showbiz. Talent is flown in, clips are screened, and guests are wined, dined and festooned with swag. What’s not to like?

Well, it turns out all of that hubbub is masking gradually increased expectations. This year’s eight-day stretch of NewFronts, from April 28 to May 7, is the most consequential yet. In just the first day, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Xbox and Yahoo each held forth, and each grappled with existential questions — about growth, about strategy, and of course, about profit. We’re not a newspaper, went the Times theme — we’re a hub of some 430 videos a month. We’re not a portal where you check your email, maintained Yahoo — we are a collection of high-end content creators and Katie Couric is on our team now. Those assertions didn’t quiet some larger questions echoing ever louder for many of the other presenting companies at the NewFronts. Here are five of the biggest:

1) Can YouTube make good on its 5% solution? When YouTube takes the stage at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on April 30, hovering over execs like a cursor will be the question of whether it has tacked in the proper direction by going back to its roots. After essentially throwing in the towel on its expensive bet on original content a couple of years ago, the O.G. UGC player is now committed to the idea that showcasing its stalwart channels — the blockbuster traffic magnets that don’t yet have the household name status on Madison Avenue — is its true destiny. There are big bucks in this so-called “Google Preferred” direction, and the company has also teamed with Nielsen to offer guarantees for ad buyers, a traditional TV move that is far less common online. Ad buyers will be wondering how to make that sexy for clients.

2) Can Conde Nast go from traditional print to digital content powerhouse? It’s the dawn — as in former TV exec Dawn Ostroff — of a new day for print publishers. And Conde, home to elite brands such as Vanity Fair, Vogue and Gourmet, is basically arguing that its expertise in the tastemaking path qualifies it to make original video more efficiently and effectively that others vying for their deep-pocketed audience. Essentially, they look at ventures like Esquire‘s foray into cable network programming with NBCUniversal and wonder why a magazine brand, already saddled with legacy costs, needs to go that costly, complicated route. But while that sounds utterly logical, the questions remains: will Conde have the kind of knack Ostroff showed in guiding the likes of Gossip Girl to the air? Or will its online video content seem like so much backstage-with-Anna-Wintour fare?

3) Can Hulu’s new team make it a threat to Amazon and Netflix? Last year was an eventful one for Hulu, which is owned jointly by 21st Century Fox, Disney and NBCUniversal. Initially it sought a new owner; after sorting through bids and weighing its options, the service opted to avert a deal and instead installed new management — led by distribution vet Mike Hopkins — to make a go of it. There are plenty of positive signs, with Hulu Plus up to 6 million subscribers and the brand now past the billion-dollar level, a mark once thought laughable. But a major reshuffling of the content team in recent weeks has prompted whispers that singles and doubles — e.g., fun shows like Incredibles-esque The Awesomes, are not quite enough. So the question looming over Hulu’s session will be: where is its House of Cards? Or is that even the way they want to go?

4) What is Time Inc.’s plans for the post-spinoff, post-Time-Life world? Time Inc., long part of Time Warner, will soon be spun off as its own company and possibly out of its longtime postwar landmark home, the Time-Life Building on Manhattan’s Avenue of the Americas. Change is in the air, and the strategy that held sway just a few years ago is out the window. Content travels across platforms in today’s Time world, and the main mission is to build an arsenal of video across Time, People and Sports Illustrated (among other top brands) that will lure advertisers. But the company faces a bit of a “me-too” question, especially given it has never historically been known for synergy — the lack thereof, in fact, helped doom the AOL-Time Warner deal and other combinations of properties under the Time Warner roof.

5) What will Maker Studios become after the Disney deal? Maker Studios, like Vevo, Machinima, Big Frame and a host of others, is classified as a “multichannel network” — it works with YouTube to populate the content giants many channels. Its sheer reach — and, in particular, reach to younger audiences — enticed the Walt Disney Co. to pay $500 million (and possibly more once incentives are counted) for the site in a deal announced earlier this year. But what exactly will Disney want to do with Maker? It has managed major acquisitions from Marvel to Lucasfilm well since bringing them into the House of Mouse. And the appetite for deals is such that even BuzzFeed got a serious look, according to a report in Fortune. But the $1 billion pricetag proved too daunting. Disney has its share of blemishes in the digital space, from Club Penguin to the Go Network — so what did it see in Maker? That’s what buyers, press and anyone else in the NewFronts room will be waiting to hear the answer to.


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