Advertising Technology

A Cord-Cutter at the Newfronts

Gavin_260This column was written by Gavin Dunaway, U.S. Editor at AdMonsters, the global community of ad operations and technology leaders.

Portrait of a cord cutter – you’re looking at it. Disturbing, a little serial killer-esque, I know.

Five years ago, I moved to NYC from DC with a laptop and an iPod as my only media consumption devices. Eventually I got a TV, and then another – one a smart TV, the other hooked up to an Apple TV, both with easy access to my Netflix and Hulu Plus accounts. The $3 antenna I bought from the discount store delivers a pretty impressive signal on the rare occasions I use it. Every week, my Internet provider wastes postage and paper trying to offer me some amazing deal for adding cable and phone service. (Hardline? How 20th century.)

Am I forward thinking? Perhaps just cheap? Probably more the latter than the former, but overall I’m pigheaded – if I’m going to consume media, I want to watch what I want, when I want to. I’m not a slave to any media company’s schedule. Even with live sporting events, my flexibility is improving – at AdMonsters’ OPS TV, July 18 in NYC, Lee Bushkell from the PGA Tour will demonstrate how its giving golf fans access to all the live events they can consume across any device.

I don’t just flip on the TV when I come home from work – I used to decompress from a day at the office by finding some variety of “Law & Order” repeat on whichever basic cable channel. But just as it’s morphed the advertising landscape, technology has changed – really, empowered – visual media consumers (all right, call ‘em TV viewers).

So much of TV programming – I’m especially pointing to you, basic-cable reality shows I see advertised in the subway –seems like junk food media. Not even comfort food, but cheap trash you shove in your face for no good reason and then you feel bad about consuming later. When I get that junk food craving, I have a different source these days: I head to the Internet and watch cat gifs.

I want my “TV” on demand, on whichever device I choose. That’s why I’ll join the chorus suggesting that the digital content newfronts truly broke through this year. Why I left them saying, “Oh – these guys get me.”

Portal to Tomorrow

Upfront culture has always felt alien to me. I get it’s about showing off to the buyers – parading your glamorous stars at a gaudy party overflowing with top-shelf drink, mouth-watering hors ’devours and swank décor. Maybe I’ve read too many snarky media critics scoffing at the content previewed, and that I tend to write about the unsexy business of ensuring the piping works and flow is efficient (and profitable), but upfronts have always left a tacky residue in my throat.

What’s worse than a tacky display? A pale imitation. And that was my previous opinion of newfronts – I’d hit a couple as the senior editor at Adotas, and while the food and drink were fine, the content left something to be desired. C-list celebrities – some of whom I were surprised were still considered relevant, or even alive – promoting rather unimpressive pieces of work, sometimes looking like something off a public access channel. I could see a limited audience at best for any of the works, which might work fine for some niche advertisers.

However, digital video content has really come into its own in the last year. Even though I’ve long been an Onion follower, I was a bit shocked how much time I spent on YouTube watching last year’s “Sex House” and “Porkin’ Across America.” Both left me screaming in joy to the point the neighbors complained. I’m on the fence about the proposed YouTube subscription model, but that was programming I would definitely pay for: it was well-scripted, well-acted, well-shot and not cheap.

Oh yeah, it was also on-demand for the consumer.

At the Aol NewFront in particular, there was nonstop name-dropping of “House of Cards.” That was a bold investment in high-quality, on-demand content on Netflix’s part that seems to have paid off. It also seems to have invigorated digital media producers such as Aol – the closing title speaker at this year’s OPS TV – which showed in its newfront how much it’s stepped up its game.

Aol, as well as the rest of the legacy Internet portals, has been in a painful metamorphosis for years. I can’t tell you how many articles I have written pondering the role of the portal in the social media age, especially as Facebook seemed to be subsuming the role of gateway to the wonders of the Internet (now with friends!). While I thought CEO Tim Armstrong’s focus shift to content was bold (and ultimately the right direction), I had my doubts whether such a transformation could be pulled off.

But this year’s NewFronts from Aol, Yahoo and Microsoft pointed at a future for the portals – they could be “broadcasters” in the multiplatform age in which media was consumed increasingly in an on-demand fashion.

Enough speculation – what about the content? It seemed pretty good, stuff I actually want to make the time to watch. Some fuss has already been made about the show that made me roll my eyes the hardest, the one that most reminded me of basic cable tripe. Nicole Richie’s tramp stamp episode of her Aol reality show quickly hit a million views – it’s smart, relatable reality television: the older self revisiting youthful indiscretions.

The success of “Candidly Nicole” does raise the question – do digital media companies want to directly compete with the giants of TV or provide an alternative? Well, why can’t they do both?

Because other Aol offerings seemed to fill serious niches: Sarah Jessica Parker introduced a series profiling New York ballet dancers – “Black Swan: The Series”? –offering a combination of performance and human interest. Gwyneth Paltrow co-hosts a show talking about women overcoming adversity in its many forms while Shelly Lazarus gave an impassioned speech pumping her Makers series on women entrepreneurs.

The Sartorialist, the TV show. A human interest show were sports stars explain the stories behind their tattoos. And most notably, Hank Azaria’s narrative of becoming a father – the preview alone was equally hilarious and tear-jerking. Sure, there were celebrities, but this wasn’t junk food. There were also some cooking and fashion-related shows that didn’t do much for me among the 15 shows previewed, but the majority were high-quality documentary content that I imagined I’d have a hard time finding via channel surf.

Multiplatform Horizon

I had a similar experience at the Weather Company’s newfront. You could say is a portal in its own right, or a social network of weather-obsessed folks – “Weather Enthusiasts,” the company deems them. Original content is fresh territory for Weather, but expands the definition of weather to encompass nature in general.

Weather is both a large cable and digital presence, making the merchandise a bit different than Aol. (On a side note, Aol’s HuffPo Live announced a partnership with Mark Cuban’s AXS TV, bringing its broadcast to cable). But similarly, the company is embracing the “quad play” – content available and format-appropriate on TVs (via both cable and Internet connection), desktop Internet, tablets and smartphones.

Three series from the just-introduced Weather Films would be shown on the Weather Channel as well as digitally accessible. “I Am Unstoppable” focused on outdoor athletes that overcame incredible disabilities – not just physical either. “Virus Hunters” seems pretty self-explanatory, while “Alive” profiled survivors of natural disasters. These joined three more digital-only series that examined locations with the harshest weather conditions and environmentalists protecting endangered

All of the video shown was gorgeous – amazing widescreen landscapes that Ansel Adams would faint seeing – and set up to compete with content “educational channels” Except Weather was bypassing the crap (don’t forget that “Honey Boo-Boo” is on the station formerly known as The Learning Channel), focusing on a few high-impact series rather than cramming a 24-hour schedule with anything that fits the budget. It was also fascinating to see how Weather was balancing this nascent original content alongside its current beloved weather services and coverage (and data-based advertising products).

Consumers in Charge

I am not the norm. A study has shown that cord cutting is a limited trend. However, I am the extreme when it comes to consumers taking control of their media consumption – I just cut out one channel that doesn’t serve me much value.

In AdExchanger commentary on the newfronts, Neo@Ogilvy’s Sacha Xavier asked, “In a world where people don’t realize their TV is connected, will these programs catch on or is it too soon?” Good question – I don’t know, but I think we’re closing in on the tipping point, which is partly driven by higher quality digital content easily available across platforms. I agree with Armstrong in predicting that both low-quality Web and cable contentwon’t be long for this world.

The final session of last year’s OPS TV was titled, “If Viewers Are in Control, Where Will They Take Us?” The panelists were wise enough to know they weren’t sure, but they did know they were going to try to be there before consumers showed up. This year’s newfronts sent a similar message to me – digital media companies realize consumers are increasingly in control of access and content.

I hope advertisers read the writing on the wall as well.