The Big Upfront Ad Season: Selling Horse Manure and Calling It Caviar

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By Heat Street Staff | 4:45 pm, May 4, 2017
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They sell horse manure and call it caviar. Billions of dollars changes hands. Tens of millions are spent on elaborate parties and one-time presentations. It’s called the “Upfronts” and now “the Newfronts” for digital outlets. For about six weeks every spring, the people who spend the lion’s share of advertising dollars do a dance with the publishers and networks who want their money.

The purveyors of the content are expected to dazzle the ad buyers with their brilliant new offerings and the sheer coolness of their events. Wheel in the celebrities and the ex-presidents on-the-take, as A&E networks did with President Obama. Rent out some of the country’s most famous performance halls, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Then pay for nightclubs and restaurants. Let the booze flow and hope the awful content you’re selling becomes a side-show to the real entertainment.

They’re called the “Upfronts” because the original idea was to get a huge  portion of TV ad dollars booked upfront, or before the next season of television programs debuted. In a competitive market with so many ways to reach consumers, the concept sounds totally out of date. People in the industry have been complaining about it for decades. And yet this clubby way of financing so much of television, cable, and digital content endures.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 18: View of the atmosphere at the Turner Upfront 2016 reception at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 18, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Turner)


And yet more and more content brands are in on the act. Disney is shutting down much of Maker Studios, its billion dollar acquisition of Youtube networks from a few years ago, but they still need a presentation for the detritus. Next week the folks running a “transmedia” company called “Astronauts Wanted” will show you their stuff. “No experience necessary” is their tagline. You know you’re really hip, and of the moment for millennials, when you describe your own programming as “irreverent” and “absurdist.”

Group Nine is another content company literally selling dog shit and calling it cornflakes. It was formed when the venture capitalist Kenny Lerer financed his kids’ companies, including The Dodo (for content about dogs) and got struggling Discovery Networks to give him $100 million in a roll-up. His son says its all about providing scale to advertisers and moving up the food chain of quality programming. It will take the company at least three years to burn through the cash, and if the programming doesn’t improve, at least the earn-out will mean a step-up in real estate for the lucky progeny.

Then there are the big boys of digital. Complex Networks is owned by Verizon and Hearst. We’re talking big programming muscle. Complex has a new brand called “Rated Red” which they describe to advertisers as “Vice for the Red States.” In practice, it’s a lot of really bad stereotypes of people from southern states hunting, cooking, snowmobiling, celebrating the military, and showing their boobs. So naturally they’re wooing advertisers with a redneck version of Anthony Bourdain called “Jeremiah Bullfrog Forks It,” a 48 episode Alabama backwoods survivalist show called “Going Cambo,” and “Throttle Rockets”  following “a team of mechanics as they make dreams come true for scooter enthusiasts.” Not everything can be HBO.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 14: A general view of atmosphere during the CW Network’s 2015 Upfront party at Park Avenue Spring on May 14, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for The CW)

For the digital guys, coveted offerings from Refinery29, PopSugar, and Vice are up next. In support of its very poorly performing cable network Vice has been running ads claiming, “PEOPLE ACTUALLY WATCH OUR TV ADS… VICELAND has #1 stickiest commercial breaks on TV with a 93.96% completion rate and the lowest ad load out of all cable entertainment networks, our shorter breaks lead to better viewer retention.” And what’s more, “Our native ads also drive up unaided brand recall by 25 points vs. standard ad breaks.” Awesome! So 3000 stoned people watching Vice on TV didn’t manage to change the channel. You dudes rock and we totally trust your data.

And for the really big show, when the old broadcast networks roll-out their offerings, we are dying to know whether a program called CHARLIE FOXTROT gets a pick-up at ABC. “Captain Charlie Taylor is a cautious, lovable dentist stationed at Fort Bragg who promises to look after his brother’s impulsive fiancée and her two misfit teens while the brother is deployed in Iraq.” Riveting.

At NBC, we’re on the edge of our chairs rooting for “CHAMPIONS”. The longline: “Vince is a charismatic gym owner with no ambition who lives with his younger brother Michael, a gorgeous idiot. Their simple life of women and working out is put on hold when Vince’s teenage son is dropped off on their doorstep by Priya, one of his old high school flings.”

Appointment viewing worth billions.