TV Upfronts: Fingers in the Digital Dyke

TV Upfronts

TV Upfronts

The broadcast and cable TV networks have wrapped up their spring narcissistic extravaganzas that try to seduce TV buyers to invest their ad dollars in programming that will appear next fall.

The upfronts are a buggy-whip-technology-like annual ritual that each year are variously predicted: 1) To be the last upfront we’ll ever see, 2) to be more over the top next year, 3) to have lower CPMs, 4) to have higher CPMs, 5) to include online media, and 6) to feature mud wrestling. But when William Goldman wrote about Hollywood that “no one knows anything,” he could have been writing about the critics and pundits who write about the TV upfronts.

Logical, rational thinking based on current industry trends would clearly indicate that the upfront buying season can’t last much longer, because CPMs can’t continue to increase as broadcast and cable TV network audiences continue to decline – it’s an impossible situation that defies the economic laws of supply and demand.

Furthermore, as digital trading and real-time bidding (RTB) increases, it surely will be just a matter of several years until all broadcast (radio and TV) and cable TV inventory will be digitally traded. It’s logical to believe that advertisers will demand a digital trading model in order to bring the CPMs of TV down to the level of online and mobile CPMs. Certainly the digital flood of algorithmic trading is coming.

Not So Fast

The TV networks are successfully keeping a finger in the digital dyke with the unspoken, shadowy, tacit support of the big agency conglomerates and massive advertisers who all want to keep TV network CPMs and prices high.

Here how the conspiracy works:

  1. The TV networks require that the big agency buyers submit their advertisers’ budgets before the upfront season starts.
  2. The TV networks then allocate how much inventory each advertiser will get and how much they will pay based on last year’s expenditures.
  3. The agencies want to spend more because their compensation depends, in part, on how much they spend, not necessarily how well they spend it, and agencies want to spend as much as they can so they can gain bragging rights (“WPP spends 33% of all network TV dollars, so we have more clout than anyone,” e.g.).
  4. The huge advertisers like ATT, P&G, Ford, etc. want to keep prices high and the upfront allocations of desirable inventory in tact because it blocks out poorer competitors. It’s the American Way – the rich get richer by keeping the poor in their place.

So, with these three powerful players in the media advertising cabal serving all of their self-interests, don’t expect the TV networks to pull their fingers out of the dyke and allow their inventory to be traded digitally at an auctioned CPM. That would be too democratic, too reasonable, and too catastrophic.

We’ll see how long the networks can keep their fingers in the digital dyke and keep their inventory away from algorithmic trading and RTB. But you have to look at how long it took other industries to address disruptive innovations – storage discs, newspapers, steel mills, auto companies (or ask Clayton Christensen) — even to have an opaque, cloudy look at the answer.

About Charles Warner

Charles Warner teaches in the Media Management Program at The New School and NYU’s Stern School of Business, and is the Goldenson Chair Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Until he retired in 2002, he was Vice President of AOL’s Interactive Marketing division. Charlie’s book Media Selling, 4th Edition is an update of Broadcast and Cable Selling and is the most widely used sales textbook in the field. He has also written a companion book to Media Selling titled Media Sales Management that is available free on



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