My first upfronts: the new TV battleground and American overlords

Josh McDonnell
By Josh McDonnell | 8 November 2018

When I first started covering TV I was told by my predecessor that upfronts was “the biggest part of the year”, and he wasn't wrong.

The three largest TV networks in Australia all putting on the ritz while demonstrating they have got the goods for 2019, in an attempt to win over media buyers, sounded too good to miss.

I had no idea what to expect, but needless to say the good people at Nine quickly solved the conundrum with a Ferris wheel, merchandise avalanche and more activations than the Easter Show has food stalls.

See: Nine upfronts: Ninja moves to Melbourne, addressability and better buying

But the fun and glitz isn't the important part, what Nine really revealed on the night was that they were the masters of consistent content.

With most of their hit reality shows such as Married at First Sight, Ninja Warrior, Love Island and The Block all returning in 2019, other new shows announced were weighted heavily towards the drama side.

Drama on NineDrama on Nine

Aside from Love Island moving to the main channel, which is a smart and confident move that proves its place in the reality show 'thunderdome', I was keen to see what Nine could do to drive more multichannel advertising.

With familiar Nine top execs such as CEO Hugh Marks, sales boss Michael Stephenson, content strategy director Lizzie Young, digital guru Pippa Leary and head of sports Tom Malone all taking the stage, it felt as though the network sent out a clear message “we’ve got this covered in 2019”.

There was no ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’ strategy, Nine simply made it clear it had a concise strategy, regardless of the result of this week’s ACCC merger announcement, and it wasn’t diverting from it.

From an advertiser opportunity standpoint, integration will remain key when it comes to content, while the Voyager platform sees the network focus in on the rapidly growing SME market.

Despite subsequent whispers from those at smaller and indie agencies, who raised concerns this would eliminate a core part of their roles in the planning and buying process, the general response was positive.

See: 'Slick, confident and consistent': Industry reacts to Nine's upfronts

Even still, from ongoing discussions with those in agency land, Nine was applauded for proving it was willing to back itself and the strong year it has had in 2018, giving what one buyer called, “an easy option” when it came down to the buy.

With the SME market hammering out approximately double digit growth year-on-year, it's a solid strategy and frankly, Nine can't afford to sit back and let someone else snatch it from underneath them.

Overall, Nine has shown it is ready for 2019, mainly because it laid the foundations in 2017 and built a solid frame in 2018.

The reality rampage continues

Much like Nine, Seven had flairs of consistency, paired with big promises, new launches and content that showed a realisation around the growing obsession of drama and reality programming.

The network also revealed its newest news website following the Yahoo split, 7News.com.au, with chief technology officer Clive Dickens boldly promising to make it the number one news site in six months from launch.

From a content perspective, some shows looked eerily like popular competitor projects, in fact, I’m shocked that the creator of The Proposal, one of Seven’s new reality shows, who also created The Bachelor, didn’t feel it was wise to perhaps change the logo ever so slightly. They look almost identical.

 the proposal

Other reality shows revealed continued to fuel my own personal frustration at those who allowed the 2007-08 US writers strike to take place, giving way for this genre to run rampage over the world.

This year has seen waves of ex-contestants from every network come forward, revealing PTSD-related mental health issues due to the treatment they received on their respective shows.

MKR was hit with backlash this season over allowing, and drumming up viewership, relating to two contestants conducting what could be described as “on-screen bullying”.

While I know the genre is an advertiser goldmine, I can't help but continue to question, will the world of 'reality' remain brand safe in the long run?

See: A solid content spine or missing a vital data backbone? Industry reacts to Seven Allfronts

Until then, for those looking to sneak in a cheeky integration, nothing says marital bliss like a screaming match between a couple in the new Holden Colorado. “Wow honey, thanks to these thick, heavy tint windows, no one can hear or see our petty squabble. Our reputation as a reality show couple remains intact”. Of course, that's until 7News.com.au releases it's tell-all article.

A partnership with News Corp obviously led to the easy thought path of “is this the sign of a larger play by News?” My answer remains yes, more tie-ups to come I'm sure.

Seven chief revenue officer Kurt Burnette said this was an obvious conclusion to jump to but added it will only be focusing on “partnership prospects”, which are not simply limited to News.

Navigate Auto, the News and Seven creation, made sense but also felt like it was being done already, just slightly differently. However, it can’t be ignored that the businesses has a staggering advantage, with a giant audience at the ready for advertisers to target.

The biggest takeaway from the auto marketing platform remains, what does this now mean for Seven and News down the line?

Finally, what had buyers split down the middle was data. Dickens and OTT sale director James Bayes put their feet down, declaring dedication to non-compulsory sign-ins.

James Bayes and Clive DickensJames Bayes and Clive Dickens

Praise was given for a strategy that put effective data privacy and targeting at its core, while some prepared their rotten fruit, arguing that bucking a global trend and limiting the herd of cattle behind the precious walled garden was unwise and damaging in the long run.

See: Seven remains firm on sign-in strategy, refuses to 'chase numbers'

Finding myself jumping between the two, buyers in either camp need only wait another 12 months to see the results, with Nine and Ten both getting ready to launch their own catch-up sign in offensives.

While it would be great to pick a side and forecast an outcome, I can't. It's a bold strategy that has the potential to put Seven in a privileged place when it comes to data usage but could very well see them behind the eight-ball when it comes to making good on its addressable advertising.

What a show!

Speaking of Ten, sorry I mean 10. What an event that was, with Grant Denyer, Peter Heliar, Dave ‘Hughesy’ Hughes and Julia Morris all taking the stage to in a cabaret performance about being cashed up, Big Bash free and full of new and wondrous ideas.

First up was a major rebrand which saw the network drop its long-time Ten wording and logo, because, f**k letters, buyers are about numbers ... am I right?

Ten, sorry, 10 (it’s going to take a while) revealed it’s new bright and shiny logos, multichannel and All Access ambitions.

It was a wave of colour, excitement and commitment to something new, topped off with a touch of CBS influence, just so you never forget there are Americans in the room.

The biggest question I’ve been asked is, “are you buying this rebrand?” Of course, based on the show I saw, the CBS exec I had a brief chat with, as well as follow-ups with the 10 exec team and the air of the people in the room,  it's clear that 10 is ready to change.

However, it is going to take some time for 10 to tell, and of course, to sell.

What about sales boss Rod Prosser though? If there is any takeaway from the night and 10’s new data-driven sales strategy, it’s that Prosser is ready, willing and able to drive this new post-MCN sales team.

SeeUpfronts: Media bosses weigh in on 'sleeping giant' Ten, call for 'Pilot Month'

A slick presentation, that included hints about Dynamic Ad Insertion during linear broadcasts, a new CBS Interactive team and confidence that even without a summer sporting stable, 10 can still deliver. I look forward to seeing what he and his team can do.

The return of Pilot Week had me interested. Despite my original concerns, it’s good to see 10 stick to its own guns and bring this strategy back.

New genres and changing time slots is certainly appealing, and both chief content officer Bev McGarvey and Prosser said it will be out in market selling the initiative earlier, making sure that more brands get behind it.

Rod, Bev and Paul

Rod Prosser, Beverley McGarvey and Paul Anderson

On the content side, most shows had already been revealed, while staples such as The Bachelor and MasterChef we knew were undoubtedly coming back.

An announcement of 13 new homegrown shows and a couple of CBS original productions added to the mix and make it seem as though 10 is ready to accelerate into 2019.

While Boss and Peach sound a touch corny, they work, especially since the team at Ten admitted they are both mainly female skewed.

It was going to be hard to believe that the cavalcade of shows such as Posh Shop Frock, Sex and the City, Charmed and Stage Mums didn’t have some gender leaning to it.

But where the real confusion lies in the 10Play and All Access strategy. The point to note is that while the two will have some integration, with data from both platforms feeding one another, why did 10 and CBS not integrate the two?

See: 'Back, different and ready to go', Ten ushers in new era of ad sales

McGarvey told AdNews that content from 10 could possibly appear across two, and despite adding each platform has different viewers, wouldn’t it be easier to secure them all in the same place, with one login? Instead of having them flick back between the two or figure out which works for them, would it not be easier to make one platform with a free and paywalled capability?

Comparisons have been drawn to Stan and 9Now, which both remain very separate.

Some buyers agreed with McGarvey, stating the two needed to remain separate as to not confuse the addressable proposition. Others agreed it was only a matter of time, adding that this was only a ‘trial and error’ situation, whereby CBS would assess the success of All Access and make a decision based on the results.

But out of the big three, who bloody well won? No one. Everyone gets an A for effort. While it’s too early to tell and almost too painfully cliche to say, TV in 2019 is the winner.

What was shown at all three events was a dedication to change, to adjust and to grow, albeit with the aid of others. Whether it’s through a major acquisition, corporate tie-ups or American powerhouses, TV in Australia is ready to fight for its place in front of advertisers’ eyeballs.

See: Ten reveals launch details for All Access streaming platform

Hats off to Nine for an activation filled event that proved the strength of your shows, Seven for keeping it clever, simple and all business and Ten approaching the market with an open and honest approach to the 'new era'.

Now that the stages are empty, the bars drunk dry and canapés consumed, let's see what you can do in 2019.

SBS, I haven't forgotten you and look forward to catching up and reporting on all your goings on later this month.

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