TV Upfronts Preview: Less Glitz and More Metrics

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

"Just tell me how the shows are performing," says one ad buyer as the May upfronts approach with networks down double digits and flashy series reveals shifting to data science and new platforms — unless a writers strike derails it all.

TV's annual upfront presentations to ad buyers could look very different this May. Primetime ratings have collectively fallen 9 percent for the season as broadcast networks try to turn to new measurement tools and a writers strike threatens to derail the fall lineup.

In an effort to avoid a decline from 2016, which drew some $9 billion in early ad commitments, media buyers predict the networks will shift their focus from programming to their consumption statistics. Expect CBS to turn its eye to the recently released crop of Nielsen Total Content ratings, which include 35-day viewing across some platforms — even though they don't yet include mobile or online views. Fox will likely highlight its month-old and wide-reaching collaboration with Viacom and Turner to provide complementary audience measurement to Nielsen. ABC tends to crow about the power of its brand rather than focus on its less appealing overnight figures, and it's safe to assume it will do so again. After all, says one buyer, "this is not a year of growth."

New metrics could prove a useful distraction given the crummy season that will wrap as the networks' top execs are trotted out on Manhattan's most famous stages. With the exception of NBC, where ratings are virtually even year-over-year thanks to surprise powerhouse This Is Us, the Big Four have taken a beating. Fox is up, but with a very big asterisk. Once sports is removed, its 5 percent lift among adults 18-to-49 becomes an 18 percent loss. Empire's decline has been swift, down 34 percent as of April 5, so Fox's No. 2 status sits on the shoulders of February's Super Bowl and October's record-breaking World Series. CBS is down the most, without the help of the 2016 Super Bowl, though sports only nominally stemmed its losses. Its flagship — recently renewed comedy The Big Bang Theory — recently hit a series low, just as Modern Family did at No. 4 ABC.

"The days of hiding behind big events that boost a sagging regular lineup are behind us," says Sam Armando, lead investment director at MediaVest-Spark. Horizon Media chief investment officer Marianne Gambelli is more sympathetic: "Networks know where content viewing is occurring across screens. Now it's just a matter of getting numbers that are accredited, [because] Nielsen is not sufficiently capturing them."

Less reliance on bloated clip reels featuring programming that's unlikely to garner a second season and a to-do about how the network presenting is No. 1 (by some dubious metric, of course) would be a welcome relief to ad buyers, who spend the mid-May week shuttling from one dog-and-pony show to the next. Notes one, "Just tell me how [the shows are] performing and give me the proof. How much of these presentations needs to be about the shows, anyway?"

Working in networks' favor, however, is the ability to control quality in a way that their digital rivals cannot. NBCUniversal ad sales chairman Linda Yaccarino believes many will turn to the relative safety of curated content after struggling to keep their ads away from controversial internet clips. (See Google's ad policy about-face after spots ran alongside racist YouTube clips, prompting a pull-out.) "You can see a wave of money coming back to television," she says.

Yaccarino is charged with selling across a vast portfolio, not just the No. 1 broadcast network, and has already announced that she will unload at least $1 billion worth of targeted media (with audience guarantees) for the season ahead. But as the landscape grows more complicated and buyers' options multiply, the pressure is ratcheting up. Proof of that struggle: Yaccarino is one of only a small number of ad-sales chiefs returning this upfront: Fox Networks' Toby Byrne abruptly left his post in September, followed by ABC's Geri Wang in March. The vacancies have yet to be filled.

Their jobs will be all the more complicated if the Writers Guild follows through with a strike on May 2. The guild wrote to buyers in early April to warn of a potential Hollywood shutdown, citing the 25 percent decline in scripted primetime programming caused by the 2007-08 strike. "Everyone is going about business as usual until the end of meetings, when strike talk comes up," says Katz Media Group's Stacey Schulman. "People are waiting to see how public the dialogue gets before they decide if they need a contingency plan."

A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.