Does an Interactive Upfront Make Sense?

The concept of the interactive upfront has been bandied about for the past five years or so. The idea is cribbed from the annual television ritual of splashy, boozy, swag-laden, star-studded road shows that hard-sell the networks’ upcoming programming to media buyers. It’s a limited-time opportunity for buyers to negotiate airtime at a single rate for the season, however ill-prepared their clients’ media strategy may be at the time of the event.

Interactive pure-plays have toyed with the idea. Heavy.com hosted what it called a digital upfront. Automotive sites have played with the idea, too. Yet despite the recent explosion of online video, content, and advertising opportunities on their digital properties, the television networks have more or less shoved interactive into the background. Interactive ad revenues are more lucrative than they were just a few years ago when online inventory was tossed in to sweeten the pot. But let’s face it, revenue-wise, the Web isn’t yet the side of the bread the butter’s on as far as television is concerned.

Value or Value-Add?

That’s why we were interested when Scripps Networks invited the ClickZ staff to a press preview of the interactive opportunities it’ll be presenting to buyers this upfront season. (In the interest of disclosure, we were also interested because the event was promisingly held at Food Network HQ).

I asked Scripps’ Steve Gigliotti, EVP of ad sales and emerging media, how the company determined at which point interactive was no longer a value-add for TV buyers but of value in and of itself. “The marketplace dictates what changes between value-add and value,” was his response. His team had just returned from a two-day meeting for the heads of all Scripps’ various interactive divisions.

Jeff Meyer, SVP interactive ad sales, says Scripps’ approach to online is to “sit down with clients and think about opportunities.” The company has a clear policy prohibiting product placement on-air. (Perhaps more than any other television franchise, Scripps channels, including HGTV, Food Network, DIY Network, and Fine Living, are resolutely product-centric.)

Online, it’s a different story.

“A Kohler video [on a Scripps Web site] about how to install a toilet is content,” Meyer affirms, noting competitors’ ads don’t appear within these environments.

Is Online Contrary to the Upfront Concept?

Like most other sites running ads in video, most of Scripps’ online video advertising comprises :15 and :30 pre-roll spots. Meyer tells me they’ve played with other formats, and this is the one “users are fine with.”

But is an upfront necessary to sell this and other kinds of online inventory? It seems unlikely.

Television inventory is limited by nature: by the hours in primetime, the hours in a day, and the number of spots that can run in a block. Interactive, on the other hand, is fluid and flexible.

While a site can’t offer infinite content, it can expand offerings to meet the needs of advertisers and users. It can accommodate what television cannot: extra or behind-the-scenes footage, for example. It can even be a home for a cancelled show. HGTV killed “Simply Quilts,” a series about quilting (talk about the tail!), but the series didn’t die. It moved online, complete with video components and soon-to-be-introduced social components.

The trick also works in reverse. HGTV.com’s Rate My Room, launched three weeks ago as a sort of Hot or Not for amateur decorators, had over 4 million pageviews in its first two and a half weeks. A TV series based on the site is in development.

The DIY Network has a similar project underway. On Blog Cabin, users vote on design decisions for a log cabin under construction that will be won by a participant in a sweepstakes. The project becomes an on-air series this fall.

Exposing advertisers to these online opportunities is a publisher’s (or broadcaster’s) job. But why should it happen in the upfront environment of a sell based on scarcity? Act now, or you’ll miss the opportunity!

This approach is the antithesis of sitting down with a client, discussing their needs, and potentially even building a custom solution or format to meet those needs. While there may be some advantages in presenting the entire media spectrum to buyers in one go, it’s unlikely to be a targeted approach. Plenty of advertisers still farm out interactive to different agencies, and I’m not hearing that online agencies are receiving invitations to the upfronts.

Or is that changing? I’d be very interested in hearing from interactive buyers who will be placing orders at this year’s upfronts.

Meet Rebecca (and Scripps’ Jeff Meyer) at the ClickZ Specifics: Online Video Advertising seminar on March 19 at the San Francisco Marriott in California.

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