SBJ/May 20-26, 2013/Media

Three trends worth considering from the upfront season

John Ourand
It wasn’t long ago that the upfront selling season was dominated by advertisers looking to buy schedules of 30-second spots in network entertainment shows. While that’s still a big part of the upfronts, cocktail chatter around this year’s events illustrated the dizzying changes that have affected the media business — changes that have caused networks and advertisers to adapt their strategies. This year, I heard more ad executives talk about second and third screens than ever before. Social media has been a big topic for a few years. Now, companies have plans to operate in that space.

Network and advertising executives say they’ve seen more robust years. They described the marketplace that greeted networks during the upfront selling season this year as steady. But the pace of change affecting this business created a vibrancy in the market.

Here are three trends that I’ve picked up from this year’s upfront.

> The value of sports rights will remain high.

Live sports have become the safest bet for advertisers, by far. It’s much riskier to invest in entertainment and news programming. In an environment where NBC canceled most of the entertainment and news shows it brought to last year’s upfront, advertisers increasingly are making their bets with the biggest sports leagues, knowing that they will draw the biggest TV audiences well into the next decade. SEC football and basketball games will be on national TV through 2034. There’s no guarantee that NBC’s new “The Michael J. Fox Show” will come back next year, even though it created a good bit of buzz last week.

John Skipper told ESPN’s upfront crowd that live sports hold superior value.
Photo by: RICH ARDEN / ESPN
Historically, networks have used upfronts to introduce new shows. ESPN turned that strategy on its ear this year by hosting an upfront presentation virtually devoid of new shows, other than a soccer show that will be on ESPN2 and a retooled NFL show that will be on ESPN. Rather, ESPN focused on its live sports rights, from the NFL to the X Games.

“Live sports rights represent the most valuable opportunity in media,” ESPN President John Skipper told the upfront crowd.

Fox took a similar approach in March when it publicly unveiled plans for Fox Sports 1 to an upfront-style audience of advertisers. Fox’s message was that it had enough live sports rights to become a formidable channel at launch. Throw in NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, league-owned channels and college conference networks, and advertisers have more choices than ever if they want to invest in sports.

> The industry is figuring out how to profit from social media.

It’s never a surprise to hear advertisers say that they don’t want to limit their media buy to 30-second spots during games. For years, they have been looking to supplement in-game spots with a digital presence.

This year, however, more advertisers seemed to be talking about wanting to be part of the social conversations around those games. That means interacting with fans during the week, either leading up to the games or just after them. Advertisers see this as an opportunity to use social media to tell stories and promote their brands.

Advertisers identified sports programming as uniquely positioned to capitalize on social media since it’s the most popular genre on social media.

Take ESPN, for example. Twitter was a significant part of ESPN’s upfront presentation last week. Last year, ESPN started sending out sponsored highlights in near-real time of college bowl games via Twitter. Now, ESPN is expanding that partnership to include college football’s regular season and soccer games. ESPN expects to have these replays, which can be seen in Twitter feeds, for the World Cup.

> Advertisers are looking to make one buy for both TV and digital.

For the past several years, TV network executives have said they don’t want to trade network dollars for digital dimes. That cliché isn’t used anymore because advertisers and networks aren’t viewing digital as a separate ad buy. Rather, they believe that taking advertising position on second screens will complement what’s being done on television.

This push ties in with the networks’ plans to roll out more TV Everywhere services. Last week, ABC announced plans to stream its channels to authenticated customers, as did TBS and TNT.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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