Four major trends to expect during this year’s upfront

The industry’s TV buying confab will look different post-COVID.

Advertisers have no shortage of complaints about the upfront, from its rigid deal structures to its increasingly arbitrary time frame.  

Last year, as COVID-19 disrupted the marketplace, major marketers were caught in a frenzy trying to postpone or cancel deals they had made a year prior. Prominent voices including Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard called on the industry to do away with the annual sales period, which he called “antiquated” in a modern marketing landscape. 

Nonetheless, spring is here and the upfront season is upon us again. All of the major networks have announced virtual upfront presentations and negotiations are soon to kick off.

But from the acceleration of cord-cutting to every major network debuting a streaming service in the past year, things are undoubtedly different.

1. Streaming takes the cake

Disney Plus. HBO Max. Peacock. IMDb TV. Paramount Plus. Prende TV. 

Every major network has launched a streaming service in the past year, changing the power dynamic and incentives of the major players in the game. 

Cord cutting has reached new heights, with the number of Americans who say they watch cable falling from 76% in 2015 to 56% in 2020, according to Pew Research Center. The decline is even steeper among younger audiences, with just 34% of 18-29 year olds paying for cable or satellite. This mass migration is making networks’ linear inventory less valuable, as evidenced by the Oscars’ dismal ratings on Sunday. 

Given that dynamic, networks are likely to put much more effort this year behind peddling their streaming services or selling packages that extend reach off of linear TV. But as the landscape shifts, new players are creating steeper competition for advertiser dollars. 

YouTube, which is hosting its Brandcast presentation in May, now makes up 41% of all ad-supported streaming in the U.S., making it the largest ad-supported streaming platform. 

Add Amazon’s IMDb TV, Roku’s souped up Roku Channel, not to mention platforms like TikTok and Snap taking more consumer attention and upfront dollars, and competition is fierce.  

2. Flexibility is key

Advertisers have been looking for more flexibility in their upfront deals for years, pushing for a marketplace that operates more like digital. 

Last year, flexibility became a matter of urgency for companies that needed to wiggle out of upfront commitments as their businesses were obliterated by the pandemic. Networks, responding as good partners, broke years of convention to allow advertisers to push commitments until later in the year. 

But now, the genie is out of the bottle. Advertisers don’t just know that a more flexible marketplace is workable, but are likely feeling a bit of PTSD from last year’s debacle. So they’re likely to push for much more flexible negotiations and timelines during this year’s upfront. 

Some new blood competitors are responding to the demand already. YouTube, for one, is allowing brands to reserve ad space on a seasonal basis

3. Diversity is top of mind

The diversity conversation has permeated every corner of the advertising industry, and the upfront is no exception. 

This year, advertisers are attempting to put their money where their mouths are by creating responsible investment frameworks and devoting a portion of their budgets specifically to minority-owned media companies. Some, like IPG Mediabrands and Verizon, are hosting upfronts specifically to attract minority-owned media investments. 

If brands don’t back up these commitments with action, they will get called out, whether that’s by media moguls like Byron Allen or their own consumers. This public shaming is already working, as evidenced by GM’s abrupt remedying of its own media investment framework after being called out by Allen for egregious investment practices.

4. Data and measurement is improving 

As advertisers shift more money to digital, they’re looking for targeting and measurement frameworks that make it easier to find their audience across screens and assess the value of their entire buy. 

Expect more progress toward that goal during this year’s upfront, as organizations like Open AP and networks like NBCUniversal and Disney establish cross-platform planning, buying and measurement tools that make it easier for advertisers to reach audiences wherever they're watching.

Becoming easier to work with is more imperative for TV networks than ever, as platforms like Facebook, Google and Amazon that offer simple, turnkey solutions for ad buyers encroach on their businesses. 


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