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Report on Business ‘It doesn’t fit our market:’ Are TV upfronts behind the times?

Some people are born entertainers. Corporate executives generally aren’t among them.

And yet, each spring the leaders of Canada’s media companies gamely take the stage, reading light banter from teleprompters. Some even star in cutesy videos, joking about the industry – or in the case of Corus Entertainment Inc.'s chief executive officer Doug Murphy and chief revenue officer Greg McLelland, boogieing to the Pointer Sisters – to the evident delight of media buyers in the audience.

It’s all part of the spectacle of the upfront presentations, during which companies preview their fall TV schedules, trot out a few stars and pitch their wares to advertisers. But while the parties are still a draw, some television and advertising executives say these events are becoming outdated in a shifting media landscape.

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Upfronts have a dual purpose: to fete the agencies whose ad-buying pays the bills, and to signal the opening of a futures market for media. Following each presentation, usually for seven to 10 days, advertisers can lock in deals at a lower rate. But the media-buying market has fundamentally changed. Advertisers’ budgeting cycles are now much less aligned with the TV broadcast calendar.

“It used to be the upfronts delivered 60 or 70 per cent of your revenue for the year. That’s really declined. It’s maybe 15, 20 per cent,” said Rick Brace, president of Rogers Media, which cancelled its event this year. Almost all of Rogers’s big agency deals are negotiated in September and October, not in June.

“To trade on a rate card that then inflates in June for the fall, is a bit out of date,” said Stuart Garvie, CEO of media- buying and planning agency GroupM Canada. “It doesn’t fit our market. It’s more likely we’ll be approving budgets in August or September for the fall. That’s what our clients want now. They want more flexibility rather than piling in at one particular time of the year."

Corus has also seen a decrease in investments made during the upfront buying cycle.

“We’re spending a lot of money right now to modernize all our systems so that we can have much more price flexibility as demand changes,” Mr. McLelland said. "When that’s up and running, our pricing will be much more fluid.”

Because there has been so much change in the industry, last year, CTV owner Bell Media surveyed its clients to see if the event is still relevant. Agencies “overwhelmingly” supported it, said Stewart Johnston, president of media sales and marketing at Bell Media. But, Bell also sees more advertisers making budget decisions throughout the year.

“With the pace of change, we should evaluate everything we’re doing,” Mr. Johnston said. “We feel that our upfront is such an important event ... I don’t see any changes coming.”

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Bell’s CTV upfront on Thursday did not scale back at all, raffling off Rolling Stones tickets at its party and featuring a live performance by the Arkells.

Broadcasters have experimented with a different approach. In 2009, in response to the recession, all three major networks scaled back their celebrations. Last year, Corus – which owns Global as well as specialty channels such as HGTV Canada and others – held a smaller event. This year, Rogers is holding individual meetings with agencies in lieu of its big party for its CityTV network and specialty offerings such as Sportsnet. Rogers took a similar approach in 2015.

Partly, it’s about cost-cutting. In a memo announcing the cancellation last month, Rogers called the decision “difficult, but fiscally responsible.”

“It costs a fortune,” Rogers’s Mr. Brace said. All the canapés and cocktails, putting stars on planes, venue fees and other show expenses add up. (Corus’s hoopla this year featured onstage pyrotechnics, with shooting columns of flames augmenting a highlight reel for its shows.) During his career, Mr. Brace has seen upfront budgets ranging from roughly $500,000 to $1.5-million for one event. He’s not convinced it all results in a single ad buy that the company would not have secured anyway. “I’d rather [cancel] than let people go,” he said. "I’d rather … invest in programming.”

The upfront selling season has existed for about as long as TV; but those big shows date back to 1998, when CTV revamped its brand with a grand event emulating the annual spectacles held by the U.S. broadcast networks. A highlight was an appearance by members of the cast of Felicity. Competing Canadian networks stepped up the showmanship. Digital players eventually followed suit. In late May, both Twitter and YouTube (which is owned by Google) held their own upfront events in Toronto.

“Connecting to [advertisers'] annual planning cycles is really important,” said Debbie Weinstein, global head of video solutions at YouTube.

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All the broadcasters agree that promoting TV as a platform is important. So is client appreciation – the parties are an opportunity to entertain media buyers and thank them for their business. But the trading cycle has moved on, and some are wondering to what extent the upfronts should, too.

“Can I see a time in the next few years when the upfront will be a lot less important? Absolutely," Mr. McLelland said. "But I still think they have lots of opportunity for us to showcase what we’re doing.”

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