Like most Americans, I am following the news of the upfronts with great interest. Oh. Right. Most Americans couldn’t care less about the upfronts. Most Americans don’t know what upfronts are. I even had to explain the concept to a 15-year veteran of the motion picture industry. In his defense, nothing in his job requires knowing the nuances of how television advertising is sold.
He just needed to know that big bucks spent on “spot” advertising were normal.
In many ways, the upfronts are the major networks’ ways of securing lines of credit for new programming. New shows and lineups are presented to the advertisers of the world. Said advertisers are supposed to, somehow, identify the shows that seem like good bets and commit dollars for future commercials. In theory, buying time early is a way to guarantee a good price. In practice, it’s just about impossible to tell in May how things will shake out in September in October.
What seems like a deal now will very likely be an overpriced boondoggle in a few months. What seems like a boondoggle now — committing dollars to ABC’s new series based on the Geico cavement — may seem like financial genius when other advertisers have to buy commercial time on the (maybe more expensive) spot market.
Advertisers are understandably leery of this year’s upfronts. Each year, it seems that networks are less patient with the process of finding and growing and audience. Shows that seem like crowd-pleasers can be yanked after a single airing. And the audience — oh, the audience! — they time shift and download and engage in behaviors that make metrics very difficult. Advertisers don’t like it when viewership numbers aren’t met. They want eyeballs for their money.
The upfront market is a growing farce. Major networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, even Fox (oh heck, let’s toss the CW into the mix) simply do not hold a monopoly on audiences anymore (if they ever did) and the way new programming is presented to viewers in the fall is a ridiculous exercise in frustration. Suddenly, we, the consumer, must try to fit a whole bunch of television watching into our already busy schedules. If we don’t jump from channel to channel like deranged monkeys, the opportunity to catch an interesting new show may be lost forever.
We don’t have time for things like word of mouth to take effect. The networks will treat the new fall season like they’ve treated every fall season. And there will be hand-wringing articles about cancelled shows and dwindling audiences and saving television as the World Series reaches its exciting climax.
What audiences need now, more than ever, is staggered launches, successive programming — no more ridiculous hiatuses for shows that rely on serial storytelling, please! — and time to find new shows. What we’ll get, again, is a snake pit of choices that make us worship our TiVos even more even as we decide that a summer of non-new network programming was enough to break us of some very bad old habits.
Come next fall, the networks will discover that original online programming has destroyed all the hard work done during the upfront market.