May 15, 2013
By Michael Grebb
TV networks have been plying advertising executives with alcohol, hors d’oeuvres and awkward celebrity conversation for several months now, but you wouldn’t know that from the press and Twitter buzz this week. That’s because this week’s upfront activities involve the TV broadcast networks. And we all know that those are the real
upfronts. Only the Big Four—with their penchant for homogenous cop procedurals, medical dramas, situation comedies and reality competitions—can truly capture our imaginations. They do this by giving us what we say we don’t want but really do: Lots of easy-to-understand, black-and-white, unambiguous goodness that appeals to those of us who just want to pop a beer and escape our hellish jobs for a few hours every night. We’re exhausted. We don’t want to think. We want to watch something simple, something self-contained… something that washes over us like a sweet morphine drip. Press the button on that remote. More morphine. Ahhhhhh…
This isn’t to say that cable is some kind of mecca for socially evolved brainiacs. After all, those proud, self-affirming mental workouts we get keeping up with the politics and alliances in “Game of Thrones” every week come with the shame of knowing that rednecks, bored Hollywood socialites and family meltdowns await us right around the corner. None of us have clean hands here. But when it comes to the upfronts, it’s striking how much attention the broadcast nets still receive from the collective zeitgeist. TV critics, for example, are on tweet overload this week, recounting every gag, spoof video and presentation bullet point as the Big Four hype admittedly lots of new shows. Of course, the reason they have so many new shows is that they just cancelled the ones they told advertisers were the best thing ever last year during the upfronts. It’s all part of the circle of life in the broadcast world. But while all of this is quite exciting (so many new shows to put on the air for 5 eps and then cancel!), we have to wonder why the cable upfronts get so little play (unless you read CableFAX, of course).
Now in the old days—you know, way back before the iPhone 3S—maybe this made a lot of sense. The broadcast nets are the big guys. They get big ratings, and they suck up big ad money from Madison Avenue. But take a look at the ratings lately, and you’ll see quite a shift over just the last two or three years. USA, TNT, TBS, FX and others often beat out their broadcast counterparts in the ratings. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” has eaten the broadcast competition alive (sorry). Sure, many broadcast shows still beat cable—but increasingly not by much if at all. And even cable nets with low ratings relative to the broadcasters tend to go off the charts when it comes to viewer engagement through social media and other avenues. Many also attract niches quite attractive to certain brands. In addition, cable audiences tend to skew younger and, dare we say, smarter in the sense that they’re more willing to immerse themselves in complex and ambiguous storytelling. Let’s see: Might free thinkers willing to dig beneath the surface also be the kind more open to switching products because of a smart ad campaign? Hmmm…
None of this means that advertisers seeking the broadest cross section of America shouldn’t assign a lot of value to the broadcasters. They should. CBS is wildly successful with procedurals and comedies that tap into our most primal storytelling instincts. ABC has found success with soapy dramas and reality competitions. Fox consistently delivers edgy shows that play well among 18-49s. And NBC, despite its continued struggles, deserves credit for turning “The Voice” into a phenomenon. But cable often does all this and more, sometimes much better. And it deserves more Madison Avenue buzz. Perhaps cable nets should do what the broadcasters do: Organize themselves into tighter blocks, bunching several network upfront parties and presentations into more compressed time periods. Does this need to drag out for several months? Really? Yes, it’s much easier to coordinate four broadcast networks than dozens of cable nets. But cable could make all of this easier on everyone. That may not be the only reason that this week gets so much attention—but it’s one of them.