#OPSPOV: Meet the NewFronts, Same as the OldFronts

Meet the NewFronts, Same as the OldFronts

“I’ve had a lot of people ask, ‘is Hulu digital video or television?’” quipped Peter Naylor, SVP of Sales and repeat AdMonsters keynote. “Well, as a sales guy, I’m inclined to respond, ‘I’m anything you want me to be, wink.’”

The buyers at the Hulu NewFront got a kick out of that, filling NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom with laughter. Upfront presentations are an enjoyable way of showing advertisers that media companies are malleable, and happy to dance and sing for some brand budget. And despite the digital video revolution including streaming video, advertisers still want TV, which explains why Naylor went on to definitively claim that Hulu is TV and that we were all attending an Upfront, not a NewFront. 

That announcement seemed strange after attending CIMM and Cynopsis conferences where brands, agencies and media companies were in agreement that video is the ubiquitous media format. But of the streaming video-on-demand (SVOD, which will always sound awkward) providers, the Hulu experience is probably the closest analogue to TV. Sure, the audience skew younger than TV, but users mainly watch long-form (20 minutes or more) video and ads are typically served in pods. 

Hulu then is almost like floaties to get advertisers ready to swim in the on-demand, all-the-time waters. This seemed cemented when Jerry Seinfeld trotted onstage after it was officially announced that all nine seasons of his eponymous sitcom would be streaming in their entirety on Hulu in June. 

“You could have just put the DVD in, but I guess no one wanted to do that,” Seinfeld joked, playfully portraying himself as an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy. But no, he had a clue, mentioning that his kids would actually watch the show now: “They say, ‘It’s on when? I don’t care when you think I should watch it; I’ll watch it when I want to watch it.’”

Yes, the grand finale of an event supposedly devoted to celebrating new and original programming was the announcement of an exclusivity agreement for a TV show whose final episode aired 17 years prior. Seinfeld even mocked the age of it – “That was a long time ago,” he cracked after a trailer. A Daily Dot article suggested Netflix dropped out of the bidding because the show hasn’t aged well and binge-watching favors serial programs (comedies and dramas) with developing plots and characters, not a show about nothing that goes nowhere.

I disagree on the former charge – I have several friends my age (34) and younger who still enjoy reruns regularly on syndicated TV (via antennas, oh my!), and I too was kinda excited about rewatching my favorites in my preferred style – on demand. The latter claim has merit – as Jerry and the gang would say, “Seinfeld” is best for noshing, not binging.

Previous NewFronts I’d attended from Aol and Microsoft really heralded the Internet style of their programming – more DIY and shorter form. But as the digital brainchild of three broadcast networks, Hulu really is “evolved TV.” A main reason for having the Hulu subscription service was access to older television shows not on Netflix. Indeed, Director of Programming Craig Erwich listed all the deals Hulu had synched with networks like Bravo, Turner and AMC (especially new series, “Fear the Walking Dead”) for streaming exclusivity on upcoming content.

“Our competitors may have some of their libraries, but we have all of their futures,” he said.

Even the new programming had something familiar to classic TV – James Franco (looking a little less stoned than when he hosted the Academy Awards) and JJ Abrams (who was probably pondering why he didn’t steal a toke off Franco) talked about their limited-run series “112263,” based on the novel by Steven King. Remember that guy? The broadcast networks always turned his books into nice miniseries like “The Stand” and “It” that garnered good ratings back in the day.

When Jason Reitman and Zander Lehmann claimed their new series “Casual” set out to be a completely different TV show, “Difficult People’s” Billy Eichner (“Billy on the Street”) retorted, “Hulu is built on already existing TV shows!” and claimed his program would be exactly like every other one. Cheeky, but maybe a subtle (unintentional?) nod to an audience seeking stability during tumultuous times?

The most Internet-esque invasion came from Freddy Wong and RocketJump, the team behind YouTube hit Video Game High School. In his introduction, he highlighted his excitement at moving from digital to the big, expensive world of TV, which seemed like an odd statement. The RocketJump show also looked the most undercooked – even the title seemed to be pending.

But just because Hulu was extending a ramp for old TV buyers to wheel their way aboard the digital video cruise didn’t mean flashy digital tricks were in short supply. 

Naylor boasted that Hulu was guaranteeing GRPs on 100% viewability – on completed views at that. Naylor also claimed that its viewability partner Moat found its metrics to be 80% better than other site benchmarks (an obtuse description that probably puts Hulu’s average viewability in the 90% range, likely based on the MRC video standard). And dealing with ratings on Hulu is simpler because you knew the programming and advertising was viewed then and there.

“No more C7 or C3 – it’s always C now,” Naylor said.

Even bigger, he announced that Hulu was opening up inventory to programmatic channels, meaning buyers could target digital inventory (desktop, mobile, tablet, OTT) on exchanges. That is a true bridge between linear and digital, an easy introduction for TV buyers into the programmatic morass.

Finally, Naylor brought out what appeared to be a native unit – “What if I told you there was a way to create a commercial together?” – for Hulu called Custom Integrated Commercials (CIC). How this unit actually worked (or was native) wasn’t clear, as the highlighted clip showed a woman eating Lays’ potato chips while watching programming on Hulu. Hopefully more details will be forthcoming, but perhaps it was less native and more “co-branding.”

New shows and original content seemed to take a backseat at Hulu’s NewFront/Upfront/WhateverFront; instead the company was happy to give TV buyers comfort programming they knew and loved. And this doesn’t seem like a bad strategy to secure a spot in an increasingly crowded SVOD universe. It’s a way to differentiate from shorter-form content on Aol and YouTube, and pull alongside CBS’ streaming business with a more robust portfolio. It does seem like a temporary strategy: Netflix’s success suggests that programming will eventually have to outshine the platform. 

But of course, Netflix isn’t ad-supported. Hulu might be the better model for watching how a digital content provider can put advertising revenue to work at scale in the converged environment.