Upfront Notebook: TV Still The Medium to Beat

Big presentations show broadcasters are in show business
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Television is not dying and this week’s upfront presentations are not a funeral.

The upfronts are more than an excuse for a few good parties. They bring together the most important part of an industry that will continue to entertain millions for years.

The people who create programming are here, both the producers and the actors. Having a hit show on a broadcast network is still a great way to get rich and famous. Odds are good America’s next favorite show—another NCIS maybe—will be introduced this week.

Advertisers and their agencies are here with about $8 billion to spend. Pinpoint targeting is nice. Especially if you manage to pinpoint the right people at the right time with the right message, which is as tricky as it sound. Marketers know they can sell a lot of cars, insurance, tacos and even digital services with 30-second TV commercials. Even Google bought TV commercials during the Super Bowl. Maybe the most powerful search engine knows something.

And the broadcast networks are here, still standing after surviving cable by absorbing its dual-revenue stream model of getting paid subscription fees whether or not those subscribers are watching. The networks will survive Netflix and the rest of the SVOD streamers, who don’t have a product without the programming created by the broadcasters and their equally endangered traditional cable counterparts.

Sure, broadcast is no longer the only game in town. But look at YouTube and look at The Good Wife. Netflix has Chelsea Handler and NBCUniversal used to have someone just like her.

Wall Street loves startups like Netflix, which makes them hard to compete with. But while Netflix burns through money at a rate of $1 billion a year to support its programming habit, traditional TV mints profits. CBS is looking to make an incremental $800 million a year via streaming. And creaky cable outfits like Discovery turns in profit margins of more than 50%.

Those scary numbers the streamers use to show how many people are clicking their sites aren’t directly comparable to TV. Say what you want about TV’s ratings but the data is rarely accused of including robots and other viewers who aren’t human as happens online. That digital death rattle is based on corrupted data.

But what this weeks’ presentations will demonstrate is that the networks are in showbiz. Big stars. Every night of the week. And while the tech people in Silicon Valley have figured out how to make money on Wall Street, they long to conquer Hollywood.

At their best, the high-tech wannabes can collect Emmys. But shows like House of Cards aren’t a new art form. They’re still TV.

And when Hulu and YouTube come to New York to woo media buyers, they might be part of NewFront week, but they’re looking for upfront dollars that had been dedicated to TV.

This year, YouTube set the bar high, filling the Javits Center. Top agency and client executives appeared on the stage. We did the Whip and the Nae Nae in person with Silento. We ate, we drank. We listened to Sia.

Now, at last, after a long season, it’s NBCUniversal’s turn. NBCU brings its broadcast, cable and Spanish language networks to Radio City Music Hall.  They’ve got a lot of ground to cover, but in addition to talk about data and platforms, I’m looking forward to seeing at least one show I will want to tune in and watch next season. Ditto for Fox Monday night, ABC Tuesday, CBS Wednesday and the CW on Thursday.

Sure, people watch online and on mobile devices. But if you can’t beat them, join them. Broadcasters are already streaming their shows and will get better at attracting viewers and monetizing those viewers. They’ll create products like CBS All Access.

And eventually, if streaming is where it’s at, somehow the streamers and the broadcasters will come together. Disney, 21st Century Fox and Comcast already own Hulu. Maybe Netflix will buy CBS and Google will acquire Time Warner, which makes dozens of shows for the broadcasters.

But for right now, upfront week—and TV—is the best show in town.

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