This Year’s NewFronts Showed Digital’s Aggressive Push to Become the New TV

Various OTT and streaming channels are upping their strategies to compete with traditional

Eight years ago, I was lucky enough to be working alongside John McCarus at Digitas, who co-founded the Digital Content NewFronts and built them into the annual ritual they are today. Back then, digital video was still an exotic investment for most clients and marketers. It was a bold move to suggest—let alone execute—the concept of creating a digital “front” adjacent to the TV upfronts that placed digital video on the same plane as television for media buyers and brands.

While a true upfront market has never really emerged around digital video, it really needs to. The scale and growth of viewership online has steadily attracted marketing dollars year over year, amped by the emergence of mobile and streaming platforms. Still, the pitch from NewFronts presenters in past years have been aimed at TV marketing dollars by touting the ability to replicate TV-style ratings measurements, upfront-style buying and the ability to accommodate similar ad creative to television.

We may be at an inflection point where the content quality and audience reach of digital video transcends the comparison to traditional television buying.

The big difference this year is a healthy shift toward mirroring TV-style production while truly leveraging the best of what digital can be as a marketing channel. Digital video has the attention and dollars now to forge an advertising path that the rest of video will have to follow while borrowing a familiar approach to content creation.

When you have a publisher like Condé Nast describing their approach to video content as “piloting” their “series” offerings with ads designed to reach viewers in “prime time,” you can see how this shift plays out. And they were far from alone. Meredith jumped in with a new Katie Couric show on their PeopleTV streaming network. Similarly, The New York Times announced a partnership with FX to create The Weekly, a documentary series based on their podcast, The Daily, with exclusive next-day streaming on Hulu.

Beyond publishing, Walmart got into the act by announcing the addition of original programming (including a deal with Viacom’s Nickelodeon) to their Vudu streaming service. While seemingly a large departure for the retail giant, one only needs to look at Amazon’s Prime Video service to see where Walmart may be trying to steal some market share. Even Twitter made some noise, doubling down on their existing slate of sports content by adding partnerships with ESPN, NFL and the Major League Soccer.

Hulu, who already has a full TV-like experience with originals and licensed streaming content, is a great example of how the trend toward these kinds of video offerings in digital are leading to innovation on the ad side. Recognizing the unique audience behaviors that streaming engenders, they rolled out three new types of ads: Binge ads, which will allow advertisers to sponsor a chunk of ad-free viewing for users; Pause ads, which appear when viewers choose to take a break (rather than imposing a break on the viewer); and Friends With Benefits ads, which sounds like something Tinder might offer but are actually sponsored Easter eggs that look like programs but open into exclusive offers from brands.

Similarly, the sophisticated digital ad targeting that underpins those products found an echo in Verizon’s data-heavy NewFront presentation and YouTube’s plans to go deep into the ability to measure metrics like sales lift through their Nielsen Catalina partnership.

In fact, we may be at an inflection point where the content quality and audience reach of digital video transcends the comparison to traditional television buying. This gives the NewFronts an opportunity to unapologetically be what it always has promised to be: a showcase for great content with the most advanced ad, sponsorship and measurement options across the media marketplace.