TV Upfronts: An Ad Buyer Weighs In on Hits, Misses and What Really Matters

"Fresh Off the Boat"

Starcom's Amanda Richman talks about cross-platform measurement, diversity (finally!), the value of live sports (could demand flatten?) and why she's proceeding with caution on ABC's Taiwanese-American comedy "Fresh off the Boat."

The curtain has come down on another season of upfront presentations. Broadcast networks and several cable (Turner, ESPN) and upstart (Jennifer Lopez's NUVOtv) nets unleashed a torrent of programming, stats and platitudes aimed at persuading media buyers to part with their client's money when the 2014-15 television season begins. But one of the overriding themes of the presentations was the viewer curated schedule that is actually making the traditional TV season increasingly obsolete. CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler, touting summer event series Under the Dome and Extant, declared the term "midseason" stricken from the vernacular. And Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly – who earlier this year declared pilot season dead – and others stressed the importance of live "events."

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Of course, buyers welcome more programming that demands immediate notice from consumers. And multiple buyers welcomed the proliferation of high-concept dramas, while also noticing the dearth of half-hour comedies. But the pitch sessions, they say, are largely superfluous to the real business of purchasing TV time. As buyers decompress from a dozen presentations over the last four days, the arduous and often bare-knuckle task of hammering out deals commences. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Starcom's Amanda Richman, president of investment and activation, to talk diversity, delayed viewing and the changing content landscape.

Is there an overarching theme that emerged from the presentations?

What we saw at all the presentations was a continued commitment to great content at potentially any price. There is clearly some high investment happening against a number of dramas. Comedies felt a bit light. Everyone acknowledged that viewer behavior has shifted but that content still is at the heart of it and people want to access it across more platforms but they still want great stories.

There were a lot of stats – many which sounded pretty dubious. How do buyers view these self-serving metrics?

Buyers generally tune out the No. 1 statements made at the upfront presentations. Anyone can frame that against whatever demo they happen to stand out with. We focus on the numbers that we have and on the apples to apples comparison. We're really there to see great content and hear about their programming strategies and how they're looking to promote it and how they're looking to connect to new audiences.

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There were a lot of very ambitious dramas but very few comedies. Any thoughts about why that is?

I'm curious if that's reflecting a [perceived] shift that people have more of an attention span as we're seeing with the growth of great cable shows and the on-demand content available through Netflix and Amazon and where the networks are also shifting to creating greater stories even if its in shorter series – 10 to 13 episodes versus 22. They're developing great characters and it was impressive too how many shows had very strong female characters.

There also is a lot of diversity in the stories and casting.

It was interesting to see that reflected in their comedies. Between [ABC's] Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, there seems to be a recognition of the new look of families that's beyond the typical suburban white view that's been pretty prevalent on TV for far too long.

Do you also have to be cognizant of the potential for racial insensitivity with a show like Fresh Off the Boat, which is based on Taiwanese-American chef Eddie Huang's experiences growing up as the son of immigrants?

There's a fine line there. I think they'll have to be cautious with the storytelling and the script and the acting to make sure it doesn't veer into that zone of not being respectful, not being authentic. Being authentic in comedy can be really challenging. But if they pull it off, certainly there can be an audience for it. We're cautious. But it's also probably a very underserved audience when you look at talent across screens.

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ABC's Paul Lee noted that the so-called "family" hour is less relevant now. How do buyers feel about the dearth of family viewing?

It was encouraging to see a show like Red Band Society get support from Fox, to see an opportunity to potentially connect with family viewing. But the reality is today it's about personal primetime. So scheduling for the lead-in, for 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, will become increasingly less relevant as people are always on demand defining their own prime time. Family viewing is still valued. But there's a greater recognition that that window is occurring any time of the day. And so we think about how do we align more with that content versus the time period.

Many executives stressed the importance of counting delayed viewing. Fox ad sales head Toby Byrne made an overt push from the stage for C7. But don't ads lose value over time and besides buyers are getting any residual eyeballs for free now?

Yes, we are getting the viewing for free now, so the motivation for C7 from an advertising view is a bit light. [laughs] I think the opportunity is to really re-assess the measurement landscape to better understand what moves client specific product and what connects with their specific customers more so than a broad commercial rating.

Will the value of the broad network audience deteriorate as cross-platform measurement becomes more sophisticated and widespread?

I think the ratings will always be one data point but there will be many more sources of data and data partnerships that will really round out the view of the audience. Eventually we'll be in a place where ratings aren't the No. 1 headline. It will be complimented with that richer understanding of engagement, of people's motivations of their audiences' ability to amplify their message and share it out and invest accordingly against the right audience. 

Networks have a lot of lucrative deals with the "Silicon Valley guys," as CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves referred to them. But they are also competing against them.

Everybody needs to partner with each other in this layered content marketplace. I think we've moved beyond this traditional versus digital world to, where might we partner, who are the right partners to drive our business together and how collectively can we come up with the right advertiser solutions? I think they all recognize that Twitter can help them from a content application standpoint but equally Twitter is dependent on the networks for content to spark those conversations. So there's a co-dependency of digital and broadcast and cable networks.

Should the networks be worried about the incursion into original content from the digital players?

The networks still know how to cast, how to script, how to develop programs and promote them to get the large-scale audiences that advertisers want. So they still have an impressive track record of bringing content to life where in the digital space its still a growing, learning journey for them. But they will get it right, they will have a few hits and hopefully, as we have more connected TV's in the home, we'll start to see more fluidity, richer development and more content partnerships.

Sports and live events were emphasized at many of the presentations. We know the NFL in particular commands steep ad rates. But how valuable is that large, live audience?

The opportunity to aggregate a large audience with sports and live events is getting a lot of traction. Certainly in some categories particularly beer, it's the right audience. Once we get into tighter measurement around how sports really performs in driving that foot traffic and being able to measure that against sales, we'll start to see if that flattens out a bit.