It’s upfront week in New York City, the time when TV networks trot their upcoming series in front of advertisers. For advertisers, the upfronts give a “first look” at new shows to help them decide where they’re going to be spending their money over the next year. For the networks, the upfronts create buzz and anticipation for the new slate of programming coming out. But for folks like me, the upfronts give a peek into how programmers thinking about their business and the evolution of the TV ecosystem.
Take NBC, for instance: The network is ultra-focused on rebuilding its TV audience, perhaps at the expense of what’s happening on the web. Peter Kafka at MediaMemo hailed its presentation as ‘NBC’s Ignore-the-Web Ad Pitch’ yesterday, and given comments from NBC Chairman Ted Harbert, it’s not hard to see why. During the presentation, he said the big screen was still the best place to watch TV programming, and gave some stats to show that most people still agree:
“[T]o put some things in perspective. According to our close friends at Nielsen, each week, people spend almost 38 hours in front of the television set, only 20 minutes a week watching video online, and just four minutes a week watching mobile video.”
Meanwhile, over at Fox, executives at the upfront weren’t just talking up the network’s popularity on the web; they were offering up the opportunity to buy TV and online campaigns together. According to Deadline.com, Fox Broadcasting President of Sales Toby Byrne promised the network would deliver “a unified audience experience” for advertisers looking to buy ad space on Fox shows wherever they appeared.
Of course, it was NBC and Fox that worked together to create online broadcast video aggregator Hulu four years ago. So it’s interesting to see them take such differing approaches to digital today. The management teams that helped spawn Hulu are gone, which may help explain it. But NBC and Fox are coming at this year’s upfronts from different competitive positions.
NBC is in the middle of rebuilding following Jeff Zucker’s reign as CEO and its acquisition by Comcast. It’s hoping to court audiences and advertisers back after falling into fourth place among broadcasters. And that all starts with getting viewers back to actually watching its TV shows when they air.
It might not help that many of NBC’s most popular shows — including 30 Rock, The Office and Parks and Recreation — are also extremely popular online; It’s still an open question for many broadcasters whether online audiences are complementary or cannibalistic. If those shows weren’t available on NBC.com, Hulu and Netflix, would viewers be more likely to tune into live airings? Or would they just watch something else?
For Fox, embracing the web isn’t just about creating a new incremental revenue stream, but about creating a promotional vehicle to help build its broadcast audience. Its 150 million followers on Facebook and Twitter aren’t just important because they speak to the networks popularity with its audience, but its ability to use the Internet to bring viewers back to live airings of its shows.
In the short term, NBC execs might be pragmatic in focusing on rebuilding and selling their TV audience rather than worrying too much about extending ad buys to the web. As Kafka points out, the billion or so dollars that online video rakes in today is a drop in the bucket compared to the $70 billion TV ad marketplace. At the same time, ignoring the web and its ability to grow a broadcast audience could be a mistake for a network already smarting from years of neglect.