With Disney, NBCUniversal and The CW announcing they’ve sold out of their upfront inventory this week, the annual ad sales carnival is officially coming to an end.
After a year where advertisers were more likely to cancel an upfront commitment than make one, a lot has changed about the market in the past 12 months.
First and foremost, streaming now dominates. We knew this about consumer media habits — cord-cutting and adoption of streaming have been on the rise for years — but advertisers have been slow to follow due to the dynamics of the market.
TV still delivers the best reach for big branding moments, despite shrinking audiences, and advertisers are increasingly locked out of ad-free streaming platforms such as Netflix.
Still, the money is following eyeballs.
Disney, for its part, said 40% of upfront dollars committed from advertisers this year went toward its streaming or digital inventory. Disney owns Hulu, which eMarketer projects will reach $2.7 billion in ad revenue this year, but Disney+, which has more than 100 million subscribers, is completely ad-free.
NBCUniversal didn’t share what portion of revenues went to its streaming platform, Peacock, but chairwoman Linda Yaccarino said in her blog post closing out the upfront: “Consumers have demanded an entirely new reality and the upfront finally reflects that.”
As advertisers return to the economy post-pandemic, they’re spending money on digital and streaming. GroupM expects digital advertising spend to grow 33% in the U.S. this year and make up 69% of the ad market by 2026.
Despite this meteoric rise, the TV networks reported some of their most robust upfronts ever across the board. Disney saw double-digit CPM increases across cable, broadcast and live sports, and The CW raised CPMs between 19% and 21%.
NBCU didn’t share information about pricing, but CEO Jeff Shell said it was “the strongest upfront in the history of NBCUniversal” and a “watershed moment and a clear signal that everything has changed.”
Granted, the comparisons are tough, as upfront deals were down between 15% to 20% in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, and networks were only able to raise CPMs by 3% to 4% after three consecutive years of double-digit increases.
But this year’s high return to demand, despite rising prices and shrinking audiences, demonstrates linear TV’s resilience — especially live sports, which Disney cited as an area driving the most robust gains.
Still, even sports will go the way of streaming sooner rather than later. The writing is on the wall for live appointment viewing and the interruptive advertising that accompanies it.
As advertisers enter a new market where context and fluidity matter more than channel and media type, and where opportunities for interruption are limited, creatives must continue to reengineer how they develop, execute and measure the success of big branding moments.
There are tons of great examples of this already happening. A few weeks ago we saw this new kind of work on display at our Brand Film Awards, where companies including Apple, Google and Hyundai were recognized for creativity that entertained as opposed to interrupting. There were more on display this week at the Tribeca X film festival, where brands including KitchenAid and Procter & Gamble are showing off the art of brand film.
As streaming platforms create new advertising opportunities beyond the 30-second spot, advertisers are starting to adapt their approaches to creative. But as the market continues its steady march toward streaming, the industry must boldly and fundamentally rethink how it achieves the big branding moments that only linear TV has been able to deliver.