Surviving The Upfront

Fasten your seatbelts...it is officially upfront season. The first presentation touting the attributes of the various broadcast, cable and digital outlets (the latter known as the "NewFront") began on Wednesday, March 2 care of Nickelodeon at the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. Dozens will follow in the Big Apple and in locations like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Dallas. And through mid-May, concluding with broadcast network week, these presentations will serve as a precursor to negotiating with media buyers and advertisers over the cost of "pre-sell" sponsorships for next season.

An estimated 50 to 70% of last year's ad revenue stemmed from the upfront marketplace.

Since I try to personally go to as many events as possible, I began my almost three month-long annual adventure with a combination of a trio Viacom networks -- TV Land, Nick at Nite and CMT - last Thursday. The message, of course, was rah, rah, rah as an enthusiastic Cyma Zarghami, President at Nickelodeon Networks Group, touted CMT for focusing on bigger and broader families, Nick at Nite for targeting adults who are re-experiencing shows from their childhood, and TV Land for skewing younger.

Since the definition "childhood," according to TV Land, pertains to the youngsters of the 1990s (who are now 30something, I presume), Zarghami set the stage for the countless upcoming crow-fests. Advertisers and networks are focused on attracting the young folk. That is nothing unusual. And because I like to take anyone to task for any unwarranted gloating, I found it interesting that TV Land, season to-date according to the traditional Nielsen ratings, is down by 19% in viewers 12-34 and 18% in adults 18-34. No one on stage will ever tell you their ratings are actually deteriorating.

In other words, take everything you hear with a big grain of salt. And keep in mind that if a network like TV Land is really skewing younger (and I don't doubt it since Betty White and company were shown the door on "Hot in Cleveland" last year), maybe the ratings slippage is a result of more activity on smartphones, computers and tablets, and less viewership the traditional way. What is down in one data stream could be up in another.

With Disney Channel just announcing that all new content will be made available on all platforms the day they premiere on the linear networks, and other networks expected to follow in the same path, the upfront presentations of today should incorporate all potential viewing streams, focusing on why a total buy is the best buy. We will likely see all sorts of data claims explaining to advertisers why they can improve their brands return on investment and increase sales best at each one of these individual networks. But, with change is also consistency, and the brunt of any presentation will still focus on the product. It is always about the programming.

Nickelodeon, for example focused on four new live-action series at its upfront presentation (including docuseries "Jagger Eaton's Mega Life" and viral sports clip show "Crashletes"), while announcing it plans to roll out more than 650 episodes of new and returning series this year. CMT boldly proclaimed plans to double its announced plans to double its original programming in the coming year, including its first scripted series. USA will certainly spend an inordinate amount of time boasting about drama "Mr. Robot." CBS will open screeching in delight about being home to the most-watched drama ("NCIS"), sitcom ("The Big Bang Theory"), new series ("Life in Pieces") and newsmagazine ("60 Minutes"). It is basically the same story every season. Fox will tooting the horn called "Empire." And The CW will place the lion's share of its attention on its itinerary of superheroes.

You get the picture.

Since everyone will claim success, here are a few suggestions that may help you decipher through the spin.

1.Talk to your peers and see what the reaction in the room is. It is really is not that difficult to decide what new series has potential, and what does not even from the short clips.

2. Focus on the theme of the network. A successful network is a platform that knows who its audience is. So be wary of when a platform like TV Land dumps Betty White and hires producer Darren Star ("Sex and the City") to age down.

3. Remember that it is about total consumption. The success ...or non-success...of a program is a combination of all potential viewing elements. But do not forget about social media, which is why Fox, in particular, will be boasting about the social media interest in its traditionally low-rated "Scream Queens."

4. Some of the bragging will be true. But finding an outlet that can live up to all of the promises (including the expected more original programming, more stability, more diversity, and a larger audience than in past years) is unlikely. So, do not believe everything you hear.