How TV Networks Battled Back This Week Against Bold Claims by Digital Companies

At stake: the $17 billion advertising marketplace

"Is television dead?"

During Turner's upfront presentation on Wednesday, truTV host Billy Eichner called that a silly question, adding, "It's so stupid. That's more stupid than not giving Samantha Bee The Daily Show."

Stupid or not, the question was front and center this week as television executives pushed back against claims by digital companies during two weeks of Digital Content NewFronts touting their reach and ad effectiveness over that of traditional TV.

"After years of predictions that digital would render traditional media obsolete, that is obviously not happening," said CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves during his network's upfront presentation, pointing out that digital advertising often lacks accuracy and credibility. "There is a clear shift in advertising back to network television." He was a bit more pointed earlier in the day, saying "the bloom is off the rose."

And Moonves was far from the only one to push back against some of the statistically true but still misleading claims by YouTube and others. Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal's chairman, advertising sales and client partnerships, set the stage for what would end up being a weeklong pile-on: The average American watches TV 15 times more than YouTube, Yaccarino claimed, and spends seven times as many hours watching TV than Facebook video. "I don't care what those Silicon Valley guys say. There is no algorithm for heart-pumping, blood-racing, breath-holding premium content," she said.

At Fox's upfront event, sales chief Toby Byrne called digital content "subprime" video. "The digital metrics game is rigged," he said.

Byrne's shot across the digital bow was meant to shine a light on a bigger issue: As digital companies vie for a greater slice of the $17 billion video advertising market, a lack of true apples-to-apples measurements forces them to game the system.

"What they're saying at the NewFronts is true," said TNT and TBS president Kevin Reilly. "But having looked under the hood of a lot of these businesses, they get to a certain point and they realize, 'We're stuck.'" While ad dollars will continue to drift toward digital—YouTube's big boast during its Brandcast was the $250 million that Magna Global shifted from TV to digital (though still a fraction of its overall spend)—there has been some buyer's remorse.

"A lot of clients have found they moved too quick, and they didn't get the results," Reilly said.

Even a former YouTuber who's now a TV star, Adam Conover, host of truTV's Adam Ruins Everything, took shots at digital. A self-described "former foot solider in the digital revolution," Conover didn't mince words when talking about the move from digital to linear.

"Maybe the power of TV is why a lot of digital-only powerhouses are starting to pivot towards higher quality linear video, more like … television," he said at Turner's upfront event.

"As a former millennial YouTube star, let me say publicly for the record, 'Thank God I am on truTV now,'" he told buyers at the packed Theater at Madison Square Garden. "It's so much better." 

But, despite all the bold claims, what the last 2-plus months have taught us about the TV-digital divide is that increasingly there isn't one.

"You need to be on digital distribution outlets to create access for certain eyeballs," Reilly acknowledged, noting that some of cable TV's hits of the moment aren't watched on TV. "People love [Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele], but they love them on their phone—they don't watch it on TV."

Many companies taking the stage this week—including NBCU, Disney and Turner—have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in digital-native brands. "The profile of our business will look very different in the next 12 to 24 months," Reilly predicted.

Still, if he could have one wish, Reilly says he'd like "to put that genie back in the bottle."