At the #NewFronts, Big-Time Content Stars Reigned Supreme

In hopes of earning millions of dollars, major established media companies and new upstarts alike promised great content—or at least big names and big entertainment programs—in their digital channels.

This year’s Digital Content NewFronts expanded to nearly two weeks of lavish parties, performances, and presentations, all fêting top ad agency and brand marketing executives.

The NewFronts were launched eight years ago as, essentially, an answer to television’s UpFronts—an even more glitzy mega-show by TV networks looking to lock in advertiser commitments to sponsor upcoming programs.

But the NewFronts are catching up. As more and more ad money moves to digital video, the competition between digital media companies hoping to produce the kind of digital content advertisers want is heating up.

Nowhere was this more obvious that at this year’s NewFronts, where high-quality original programming, big stars, and big numbers seemed to be everywhere.

Big names, big numbers

In recent years, Yahoo and AOL attracted entertainment icons like Queen Latifah, Tom Hanks, and star producer Mark Burnett to make original shows. Meanwhile, Microsoft launched new parent-friendly interactive features on Kinect for teaching kids to cook.

It was great original programming with name-brand stars, they realized, that would attract the big advertisers looking for “brand-safe” environments, not low-quality videos of skateboarding dogs, laughing babies, and who-knows-what that garnered much lower ad rates.

This year, for example, YouTube had Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson perform “Uptown Funk” at Madison Square Garden, while Snoop Dogg DJed a set at their buzz-filled after-party.

Meanwhile the suits heralded their ability to reach younger adults.

“Millennials actually want to hear from you (brands) on YouTube,” Robert Kyncl, head of content and business operations for YouTube, said, according to Adweek. “They are nearly twice as likely to prefer watching your ad on our platform than anywhere else.”

Over at competitor Hulu, Jerry Seinfeld himself announced that they now had an exclusive to offer all nine seasons of Seinfeld on their service.

Hulu, too, touted their numbers, claiming a 50 percent rise in subscriptions since 2014, and 700 million hours of programming streamed, up 83 percent over last year. Cablevision’s Optimum Internet service said their subscribers would get Hulu’s subscription service included at no additional charge.

“We are investing significantly in content and tech,” CEO Mike Hopkins said on stage. “We’ve hired an army of the brightest engineers to bring a better, simpler and more personalized experience.”

The Netflix effect: original video on parade

The biggest bets at NewFronts were on original video programming and custom native video ads.

Netflix, which doesn’t make money from advertising, made a play for older audiences, launching Grace and Frankie, a series starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, one of nearly two dozen original shows chief content officer Ted Sarandos has said they’re introducing this year.

Ad agency DigitalLBi reeled in a deal to tie up with Vice’s video content marketing. Music video specialists Vevo followed with an announcement they’d help brands create custom content.

Gaming video destination Machinima, backed by Warner Bros, announced a new show based on RoboCop and at least eight other new original series. Creative agency Fullscreen brought in Jack and Jack, huge stars on Vine, with more than 1.4 billion loops, to their NewFronts event.

Legacy platforms like Time Inc. said they’d double their level of live video production. Competitors Condé Nast promised 2,500 original videos on 18 channels for their “premium” audiences.

Suffice it to say, everyone wants a piece of the digital video pie—and the competition is just beginning.

One behemoth missing

There was, though, one 800-pound gorilla that’s full of video but was missing from the NewFronts.

Facebook, a spokesman told me, had no events scheduled. An Adweek report said they’d been on this year’s schedule for the first time ever but ultimately decided not to participate because they “do not produce original content.”

Maybe they don’t have to. As early as this month, Facebook will begin offering publishers 100 percent of ad revenue collected from content they place in the platform, hoping to keep people from clicking away, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Even without the new deal, Facebook appears to be rivaling YouTube in video views and uploads, signaling what The Hollywood Reporter called “a seismic shift in the online video industry.” They have been promoting their growth in video to attract ad spending.

If they succeed, they’ll get those dollars (and euros and yen and pesos) without taking on huge content creation expenses—and without paying for lavish, celebrity-driven NewFronts extravaganzas of their own.

Image by AP Images

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