NewFronts Takeaways: Why Digital Put the Spotlight Back on TV, What's After Pivot to Video

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Refinery29
Refinery29 COO Sarah Personette talked up the new website at its May 2 NewFront.

Given the past year has seen heightened concerns from ad buyers about the brand safety of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, it's no coincidence that digital companies focused their pitches on more controlled environments like television or their own sites.

Madison Avenue executives who convened on the morning of April 30 for The New York Times' annual pitch to advertisers didn't just hear about the newspaper's devoted subscriber base and fast-growing podcasting division. They also were treated to lengthy opining about the future of the paper's brand on TV, including a Showtime docuseries following Times journalists during the first year of Trump's presidency, a show based on the New York Times Magazine's Diagnosis column that is coming to Netflix in 2019 and maybe one day a game show based on the crossword puzzle. A week later, FX ordered 30 episodes of docuseries The Weekly about the most important NYT stories each week.  

"The interesting story in digital video is that the real winners to date are not all these new video social brands, it's the broadcast players," says Sebastian Tomich, global head of advertising and marketing at the Times. "No matter where video is, [the major platforms] still do it best. So that's where we need go."

The presentation, which kicked off more than a dozen Digital Content NewFronts pitches from the likes of Twitter, Conde Nast Entertainment, Refinery29 and Vice Media, set the stage for a week in which TV took center stage. YouTube, which has long lambasted the TV industry for lacking the young viewers that flock to its platform, announced at its May 3 presentation that it will begin selling inventory from its live television bundle, YouTube TV, as part of its premium ad tier and soon will let brands target viewers who watch YouTube in their living room (as opposed to on their phones). Refinery29 and Conde Nast Entertainment unveiled plans for over-the-top video apps. ESPN and Viacom, home to Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET and MTV, even crashed the party with their first-ever NewFronts.

It was an about-face for the 9-year-old event that was created as digital's answer to the TV upfronts. What has changed? The rise of video viewing on set-top boxes like Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast has blurred the lines between digital and linear programming, notes eMarketer analyst Paul Verna. "The last couple of years here at the NewFronts, companies like Time Inc. and Hearst were pushing that they basically were like a TV network on their own," he notes. "Now, shows are being developed by these publishing brands, but they're going to TV or non-ad-supported digital services [like Netflix]." The result is an expected 25 percent jump to $3.64 billion in upfront digital video ad spending this year. According to eMarketer, that growth is coming from two places: traditional TV networks getting into the digital game and premium content by native digitals such as YouTube.

Given the past year has seen heightened concerns from ad buyers about the brand safety of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, it's no coincidence that digital companies focused their pitches on more controlled environments like TV or their own sites. At the Refinery29 presentation, the female-focused digital publisher talked up its Channel29 OTT app and newly redesigned website, where it is more prominently featuring its video offerings. Chief operating officer Sarah Personette, who joined the company from Facebook, notes, "We are owning our own destination and our own destiny." 

Here is a look at the other big trends that emerged from the 16 NewFronts presentations that took place April 30-May 4. 

Brand Safety is Back, Baby

Those that thought the rhetoric around brand safety couldn't get any more heated after last year were in for a big surprise. This year, the continued challenges that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have faced in clamping down on fake news only added fuel to the argument by brands like Disney Digital Networks or The Dodo owner Group Nine that their shows and talent are more trusted than the massive, unwieldy tech platforms. "That seems to be the way to sell if you're in digital today," notes Anna Bager, executive vp industry insights at NewFronts organizer IAB. Though brand safety was nothing more than a catchphrase at many presentations, the topic took center stage at the Studio71 presentation. The company that works with such digital talent as Lilly Singh and Rhett & Link touted its new Context tool, which promises a review of all videos for quality and inappropriate content. "Historically, the digital marketplace has always lacked scarcity," says Studio71 CEO Reza Izad. "When brand safety is added to the mix, you start limiting a lot of inventory in the market."

But despite its struggles with unsavory videos over the last year, there was no doubt that YouTube was still the top dog when it took over Radio City Music Hall on May 3 for a presentations that eventually morphed into an Ariana Grande concert. "With openness comes challenges," CEO Susan Wojcicki conceded before an executive from Kellogg Co. praised YouTube's ability to help its snack brands reach its large audience. Izad, whose company works with many producers of premium short-form video on YouTube, agrees that concerns about the platform may be overblown: "I don't buy that YouTube is a cesspool. It's quite the opposite." 

What Comes After the Pivot to Video?

NewFronts returned to normal size this year after ballooning to 35 showcases over two weeks in 2017, prompted by the so-called "pivot to video" that turned every media company into a short-form video producer. The change came after a down year for the digital video industry following the shuttering of several short-form video platforms (RIP Watchable and Fullscreen). Meanwhile, Facebook's plan to cut back on the amount of content from media brands in the News Feed (in an effort to promote posts between friends and family) has caused many companies to rethink their video strategies. As a result, some companies — like NYT — didn't promote a single web series. Others made sure to note that their brands capture an audience regardless of whether they're serving up a web video, a podcast or an old-fashioned article. "We're a media brand," notes Kelly Day, who brought Viacom to NewFronts for the first time as the newly appointed president of Viacom Digital Studios. "We need to connect with these audiences wherever they are."

That message was also prevalent at the DDN presentation, where executives not only touted digital series Club Mickey Mouse but also showcased exclusive footage from Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 and even brought out Mickey himself as part of a discussion about how the company is celebrating his 90th birthday. Notes Bager: "Disney is not just selling a show, they're selling a whole package." 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.