Fake News, Hulu Live and 5 Questions From the Digital NewFronts

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The digital pitch-fest may be over, but not the uncertainty facing its future.

On May 5, Vice Media treated ad buyers to a boxing match between executive Niall Cooney and celebrity chef/Viceland host Eddie Huang at New York City's Spring Studios. A gimmick? Sure, but it was a fitting end to a NewFronts week in which digital media executives landed some heavy blows to the TV business.

With digital advertising revenue reaching $72.5 billion in 2016 (per the Interactive Advertising Bureau), for the first time topping the TV industry's $71 billion in ad dollars, and media stocks on the decline over concerns about subscriber losses, digital players had plenty of targets. But with digital advertising budgets largely tied up with Google and Facebook, smaller upstarts still are searching for ways to capture a larger share of the cash.

"You've got these 800-pound gorillas talking about reach," says Noah Mallin, head of social at media agency MEC, "and everybody else is scrambling to say, 'We've got reach too.'" That's just one of the issues on advertisers' and digital executives' minds as the NewFronts come to a close. The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at other key issues they're debating: 

1. Do old-school stars still matter?

Remember James Franco's Making a Scene on AOL or Yahoo's Riding Shotgun With Michelle Rodriguez? There was a time when nearly every NewFronts presentation included a show fronted by a star, but now that seems stale. "We know from TV that having a big name attached to a project by no means guarantees a success," says Brian Hughes, senior vp audience intelligence and strategy at MAGNA. Instead, companies are digging into their own IP and in-house talent for inspiration. Conde Nast Entertainment, for example, showed off a docuseries about the Arizona wildfire previously explored in an article for GQ, which it'll also be bringing to the big screen this fall through feature film Granite Mountain. When celebrities are attached, they're as creative partners, as is the case with Refinery29 fairy-tale series Fabled, from executive producer Zosia Mamet. Hulu, home to traditional TV series, was one of the few to trot out big names, from Elisabeth Moss to Mindy Kaling.

2. Is TV vs. digital a thing of the past?

Minutes into her onstage talk, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki declared that the streamer "is not TV" before rattling off comparisons between the two media. CNE made similar comparisons during its presentation. But views are counted differently on digital than TV. "You can't compare a six-minute clip to a 30 or 60 minute program," notes Hughes. But instead of dwelling over the differences, he says advertisers are wondering when there will be "a consistent, reliable way to measure viewership." 

3. Are the big brands safe for advertisers?

"Who you trust your brands with is more important than ever," Andrew Sugerman, an executive vp with Disney Consumer Products and Interactive, noted during Disney's presentation, in which it showed off a smaller, more focused network of Maker talent. He was echoing many other NewFronts speakers, as advertisers worry about placement next to the fake news that has damaged Facebook and the racist videos that have dogged YouTube. Still, brands may be coming home to the big boys, with Johnson & Johnson, which had suspended its YouTube buys, returning as a sponsor of Best.Cover.Ever, a new competition series executive produced by Ryan Seacrest.

4. Is there still opportunity in OTT?

Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins' announcement that his company's $40 skinny bundle of 50 live TV channels was widely available could create new distribution opportunity for many digital producers. Many executives spoke eagerly about opportunities to distribute their content via new skinny TV bundles or via apps on set-top boxes like the Apple TV and Roku. "This is all television now," says Awesomeness president Brett Bouttier. "Our goal is to program content in all of those places."

5. What's next for the NewFronts?

The pitch marathon shrank to a little more than 30 official presentations this year, down from 35-plus in 2016. And yet the number of nonofficial events grew. One observer predicts that the NewFronts eventually will bleed into the upfronts; others envision a day when the tech giants will play a bigger role. "Twitter was smart to get out there early," says Mallin, who suggests that perhaps someday Facebook or Snapchat will join them. 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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