TV Upfronts

What to Expect From This Year's Upfront, According to Buyers

The 2024-2025 TV upfront will have softer CPMs, a rise in women's sports and a streaming 'battleground'

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The last upfront season resulted in long negotiations with significant rollbacks outside of sports, and buyers wouldn’t be surprised by a little déjà vu this time around.

The days of skyrocketing linear CPMs (cost per thousand viewers reached) amid declining ratings, fall schedules dictating dollars and early market movers are likely long gone. In this new TV landscape, consumers and spending are moving to streaming, sports are becoming increasingly coveted and deals are becoming more complex than ever.

With TV upfront week looming, ADWEEK spoke with several prominent media buyers and insiders to better understand it all, learning the storylines to look out for in this year’s upfront negotiations.

CPMs staying soft

Deals vary across the board, but outside of sports, last year’s CPMs generally saw rollbacks of around 5%, and buyers expect more of the same for the 2024-2025 market.

“I see no reason why it’s not a similar marketplace to last year,” one buyer said, speaking anonymously. “It’s still early, but if the marketplace were to move tomorrow, in some areas it might be even softer.”

Streaming platforms, which entered the market with sky-high CPMs, are set to come crashing down to Earth, according to buyers, with more inventory flooding the industry thanks to recent ad tier launches and more money moving out of the upfront amid macroeconomic conditions and buyers wanting more flexibility and programmatic ad buys.

“Clients have had a volatile business climate for a number of years post-Covid,” a second buyer said. “There’s a very judicious thought around what dollars are going into the upfront and what are not.”

A large portion of the new supply keeping CPMs lower comes from Amazon’s Prime Video ad tier, which rolled out in January with an audience of more than 100 million. Media buyers are also looking to the streamer as a preferred partner to work with.

“If I’m the other streamers, or if I’m even the traditional guys around primetime, I’m looking over my shoulder at Amazon right now,” a third buyer said.

Meanwhile, streamers that are already lower on CPMs are well-positioned to capitalize. For instance, in Fox’s earnings call on Wednesday, Lachlan Murdoch, chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation, said he was “confident” that Fox AVOD Tubi would hold its CPMs, which are “already very efficient.”

The game plan is around sports

Heading into the 2024-2025 upfront, buyers told ADWEEK they are largely focused on streaming inventory, data-driven linear and—most importantly—sports.

“It’s not linear versus streaming anymore,” the first buyer said. “It’s sports, which kind of transcends linear and streaming. It’s above everything.”

Live sports had a record year in 2023, coming in as 96 of the top 100 most-watch programs in the U.S., with the NFL tackling the majority of the spots. Sports also took most of the top 200 programs, with college sports, NBA and even Prime Video’s Thursday Night Football making strong appearances.

“Sports is continuing, and even more so this year, where we’re going to see the only strong demand,” a fourth buyer said. “And not even sports, probably football being the strongest one, maybe NBA.”

Though news in an election year is on the table for categories such as entertainment and pharma, the divided political landscape and a focus on brand safety also have marketers looking to sports as a go-to for reaching large general audiences, according to buyers.

Showcasing the importance of sports, Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney and Fox are also launching their digital MVPD sports collaboration in the fall, giving each of the companies incremental reach on distribution.

The rise in women’s sports

Coming off of a record-breaking NCAA women’s basketball tournament, women’s sports is also one of the newer focuses this year, with several publishers recently telling ADWEEK they’ve noticed increased client interest.

Disney ad sales president Rita Ferro told ADWEEK that brands are “really getting involved” with women’s sports. Meanwhile, Paramount ad sales boss John Halley said there’s “no question” about clients’ increased women’s sports interest.

It’s really sports, which kind of transcends linear and streaming. It’s above everything.

—a media buyer on the importance of sports in the upfront

“Women’s sports are generating the economic value for advertising, which is the engine of money for sports,” Kevin Krim, president and CEO of EDO, said. “The ecosystem has now caught up. All this moves over time, but we’re not far from a moment where, in a sport like basketball, you’re gonna start to get relatively comparable compensation.”

Buyers noted they wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in women’s sports spending this year, with spend shifting from linear entertainment properties. Further boosting those opportunities, GroupM previously announced a women’s sports marketplace launching at the upfront, and Sports Innovation Lab’s Women’s Sports Club at the NewFronts also had the goal of connecting buyers with organizations representing women’s sports.

“There are some clients who are like, ‘What’s this going to do to pricing?’ Look, pricing in sports is going up anyway,” the third buyer said, noting women’s sports will likely see increases. “You’re gonna pay more for NBA, more for NFL, more for college football, so there will be a negotiation.”

The battle for streaming

Regarding this year’s upfront, “sports is a battleground, and streaming is a battleground,” the second buyer said.

With an increase in ad supply and upfront budgets shrinking, publishers will have to impress buyers with everything they’re bringing to the table, including their content, data offerings and even whether programming will likely be seen on a big or small screen.

For all publishers trying to secure TV ad budgets, it boils down to a pricing and flexibility discussion, according to buyers.

“They all have streaming offerings, and they all have data,” a fifth buyer said. “They have to change and adapt to what clients want.”

The buzzword this year is modality. Buyers want to buy in any way they want, having the flexibility to move spend across channels or programmatically. And though traditional publishers still have scale, they don’t necessarily have the elasticity that buyers are looking for.

“The biggest struggle with the upfront is that traditional media sellers are still not able to work in a modern world,” a sixth buyer said. “They still count on four quarters of forecasts and have these stringent rules around what they’re willing to do from a flexibility standpoint, whereas digital entrants and streaming native companies already understand that the world has changed and have very quick cancellation.”

According to IAB’s 2024 Digital Video Ad Spend & Strategy Report, digital video spend will pass linear for the first time this year, with the market becoming 52% digital vs. 48% linear. However, buyers aren’t counting linear out quite yet. After all, the majority of the viewing of Paramount’s recent record-breaking Super Bowl came on linear.

“Despite all the talk about streaming, linear still has a higher percentage of usage when you think about the big screen,” the sixth buyer said.

Will measurement measure up?

Media buyers told ADWEEK that alternative currencies and measurement have led to a series of false starts over the last few years, with companies promising certain capabilities and not living up to those promises.

When it comes to announcements from measurement companies and agencies, one buyer put it succinctly: “99.9% of it turned out to be bullshit.”

However, Nielsen has officially announced that it’s ready to roll out its panel plus big data measurement in the fall. And though some still have trepidation, buyers and publishers noted this year will likely see a mix of panel-only as well as a combination of panel data and big data for currency.

But in a world where companies are increasingly using AI for targeting and measurement while buyers are looking to reach specific audiences, measurement is far from its final form.

“As long as we’re still buying linear, there’s no way to transact—at least that I can see—confidently on linear measurement against a technology solution,” the third buyer said. “But I think increasingly we’ll migrate away from a currency more towards a measurement framework, third party verifications and confidence that comes along with that.”

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