The upfronts, which began in the 1960s as a glorified trade show
for television executives to sell advertising time in advance for
their autumn TV schedules, have become ever more extravagant.
This week, the biggest U.S. television networks will battle it
out for their share of the more than $60 billion in advertising
dollars spent by the world's largest marketers on television
commercials each year.
The networks' weapons? A sushi bar 40 feet, or more than 12
meters, long; a 125-foot star-studded red carpet; and 14 flavors of
doughnuts (including candied ginger and hibiscus).
What began in the 1960s as a glorified trade show for television
executives to woo marketers and sell advertising time upfront to
support the coming autumn TV schedule has evolved into a party that
can cost networks more than $1 million.
Today, the upfronts, as they are known, look more like Fashion
Week than a business transaction. This week, celebrity D.J.'s will
spin dance music in elaborate tents complete with lounges where
marketers can sip specialty cocktails alongside stars.
The addition of social media means the upfronts are not just a
tool for connecting to advertisers, either. Joe Earley, the Fox
network's president of marketing and communications, compared the
event to Comic-Con, the gathering for enthusiasts of comic books and
related aspects of pop culture held annually in San Diego. That is,
they are a first and "crucial" chance to tell the most devoted fans
about the autumn TV season.
"It's a chance for us to show ourselves at our best, because God
knows the reality of ratings will set in soon," said Alan Wurtzel,
president of research and media development at NBCUniversal.
In the go-go 1990s, when advertising dollars poured into
television, and networks did not face the same threats from the
Internet or cable competitors, the upfronts "almost became a game to
top what the other guy was doing and get the most buzz for your
upfront," said Tim Brooks, a television historian.
Back then, NBC held its party in the sprawling ballroom of the
Waldorf- Astoria Hotel in New York. Other parties took place at the
Plaza Hotel. Presentations featured live animals and Broadway-style
spectaculars, complete with confetti and chorus lines of dancers.
Indeed, as television evolved and networks had to fight harder
for advertisers' attention, the lavishness of an upfront
presentation became inversely linked to a network's fortunes (or
lack thereof). What a network lacked in ratings, it tried to make up
in passed hors d'oeuvres and party-favor panache.
Most of the big-ticket deals with advertisers were still struck
in conference rooms over stale Chinese takeout, Mr. Brooks said. "It
was a lot of money down the drain, but no one wanted to be the first
one to stop doing it," he said of the upfront parties.
"Incrementally, they all started to pull back."
The economic troubles of 2008 forced the networks to scale back
even more. The iPod party favors disappeared, and the shrimp
cocktail towers seemed a little skimpier, if they existed at all.
ABC stopped holding a party after its presentations, held at Avery
Fisher Hall, a concert auditorium at Lincoln Center for the
Lately, the glamour has slowly returned, partly because of
improving economic conditions and partly out of necessity. The big
four U.S. broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC -- face more
competition than ever. Cable channels and Web services like Hulu and
YouTube hold their own elaborate upfronts and compete for the same
advertising dollars. …