A marketer identifies the features and benefits of their product that are deemed important to a select group of target customers. The marketer hones in on the customer’s TV viewing habits, and perhaps also pinpoints some of the places they are likely to walk past in a typical day. This has been going on for years, indeed more than half a century. Only fairly recently though has the marketer been a television network and the target customer an ad buyer. This is Upfront Week.
Upfront Week is a business tradition unique to advertising sales, specifically TV ad sales, that has evolved since its start in the 1960s. In the late 1950s, new series premiered on broadcast networks at various times across the year and upfront negotiations were aligned to the studio’s development cycle. According to Ad Week, at the time, upfronts began in February after Washington’s Birthday and finished within a few weeks.
ABC is credited with originating both the broadcast TV season and the modern advertising upfront. In 1962, ABC put on a presentation in the spring, encouraging buyers to commit to spending against ad inventory that would not air until the fall, or later. In an effort to create a marketing platform for American automakers, ABC network shifted its entire programming lineup, setting its premieres for a single week in the fall. The change stuck, and the modern upfront began.
As cable networks launched and proliferated in the 1990s, and programming shifted from broadcast series reruns and movies to original programming, several of them joined the broadcasters in the spring pitch to advertisers. Turner Broadcasting and Discovery were two of the first to hold presentations in the spring for upcoming programs, though those networks’ premieres were scattered throughout the coming year, rather than all being slated for fall.
Now there are so many cable network presentations that Upfront presentations begin in March, and run through mid-May.
This week is one of the biggest in Upfront season, when the big four broadcast networks and some large cable network groups present as well. In the coming weeks, marketers will commit billions of dollars against shows and networks they think have the best chance of breaking through the clutter and reaching their target customers.
Broadcast and large cable networks spend the week touting programming announcements and their upcoming schedules with extravagant presentations that include clips from the series, appearances by the networks’ stars, comedic and self-deprecating monologues (Ben Sherwood, President of Disney-ABC TV said during his: “ABC was the first network to stage the very first Upfront presentation, in 1962. So, on behalf of ABC we’d like to say ‘we’re sorry’.) The presentations take place in theaters and concert halls in New York City including Radio City (NBC), the Beacon Theatre (FOX), Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center (ABC), and Carnegie Hall (CBS).
For years, the networks have been taking out ads in trade publications and newspapers, surrounding editorial coverage of their presentations with ads about their portfolios and platforms. This year, some of the networks took it a step further and targeted the ad buyers in their home space.
In 2013, FX took the bold step of running ads locally in NYC, on billboards, with the theme of “Fearless.” The campaign was to reinforce the FX as a risk-taking brand. At the time, their hit series “Louie,” “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy” typified that branding.
This year, NBCUniversal launched an ad campaign to reach potential advertisers. This is the first time NBCU had done this, and they planned to air the spots on their own networks as well as others to help secure advance ad commitments from buyers.
In this spot, NBCU showcases their deep network portfolio and expansive roster of household name, recognizable talent including Lester Holt, Ryan Phillippe, Debra Messing, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Kim Kardashian.
ESPN went a bit more local, in a campaign that kicked off May 1 and runs through June 11. They bought space on kiosks outside the NYC headquarters of major agency groups including GroupM, Publicis, and Magna. They also bought space on elevator screens in key office buildings. Removed of specific agency references, the campaign has also been in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.