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Television Advertising Risks and Rewards: An Upfront Guide

May 15th, 2019   ||    by Oriana Schwindt

It’s that time of year again: the annual pre-upfront purge, when networks cancel their poor performers to make room for shows they hope will improve upon the canceled slots. But pilot and upfront season aren’t just periods of uncertainty for the networks and showrunners. Television advertising risks continue to be many and varied, lending a certain anxious excitement to this season on behalf of buyers.

What Are the Risks?

Everyone knows the rewards of TV advertising by now: it’s an incredibly effective form of advertising—even in an increasingly digital world—according to

The risks, though, are evolving:

  • TV advertising is more expensive.
  • Live audiences are still shrinking.
  • Digital outlets are able to easily show ROI, while TV is still working on attribution.
  • A canceled show may be replaced by an even poorer performer.
  • A new show with a controversial star could see that star removed (like ABC’s Roseanne cancellation).

The Risk vs. Reward Equation

All of these risks, though, have been taken into account long before this year’s upfront presentations were being put together.

Because they’re sure bets at this point, advertising in shows like The Big Bang Theory, Empire, or even Grey’s Anatomy costs more money, according to Variety.

New shows are untested, and no matter how sure a network may be that it has a hit new show on its hands, there is still a certain amount of guesswork involved on the part of ad buyers. It’s uncertain whether the show will in fact attract the audience they’re looking for, and that guesswork is generally priced into ad deals.

Even in the case of a show like Roseanne, off-screen troubles seldom result in the immediate yanking of a show from a network’s schedule; instead, the show is simply not renewed or given a back-nine order.

And if a show is suddenly dropped from the schedule, you have the beauty of the upfront guarantee: The network will always make its buyers whole.

While buyers don’t necessarily enjoy makegoods—or, in worst case scenarios, refunds—the ultimate goal of the buyer is to have the right audience see their client’s creative, and if that’s done in more of a piecemeal fashion, well, so be it.

Let’s say you’ve bought time in ABC’s spy romance Whiskey Cavalier. The show, produced by Warner Bros. TV, won’t be seeing another season after its initial 13-episode run concludes.

No ad buyer is going to be shedding tears over this cancellation, unless they’ve found themselves personally invested in the two charming leads. The hope is that the network will replace the show with one that delivers the desired audience.

Audience Targeting: The Solution

Whether an ad buyer’s goal is to achieve a particular level of brand awareness for a client, or a sales lift for a specific product, the most important variable in the TV advertising equation is audience.

Networks are moving away from selling just 30-second spots for specific shows and episodes—though those transactions will always have a place in the business—and toward selling audiences. This further mitigates those television advertising risks.

Buyers tell networks how many eyeballs they want, and the kinds of consumers they want those eyeballs to belong to. And it no longer matters all that much that Whiskey Cavalier doesn’t see a second season; you’ve got your viewers all the same.

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