Recycled formats (and reality stars), ‘gems’ like Mega Mini Golf, and a possible demand-side platform: Media agency execs review upfronts 2020

What impressed (and disappointed) those who control the purse strings at 2020's upfronts? Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby asked Michael Bass, Nicola Lewis, John Lynch, Victor Corones, Paul Wilkinson and Sarah Keith to review what the TV networks are offering up next year.

Upfronts season is over, and mere days after Seven’s event – the last of the three major networks to present in as many weeks – all that is left are flashes.

Ten, the first off the block, is: The James Corden x Rod Prosser (Ten’s chief sales officer) Carpool Karaoke segment. Osher in an excellent suit. New (unexpected) Masterchef judges. The weird inclusion of the Kerri-Anne Kennerley vs Yumi Stynes Studio 10 segment in a reel, juxtaposed with footage of Kennerley traveling to visit Indigenous communities to ‘atone’. A performance by a wolf. In a mask. That turned out to be Rob Mills (we knew it all along).

Nine was the shinier, more expensive older sibling. A packed Fox Studios. Uncomfortable, small chairs that only served to highlight the length of the presentation (which was talent-packed and slick, but occasionally awkward – a family from Travel Guides called Korea’s food “filthy”). The announcement from chief sales officer Michael Stephenson of a demand-side platform. An after-party that was the most impressive spectacle of all. Rollercoaster. Carnival-style sideshow games. A towering rocketship, made of Lego. A strange, secret massage parlour featuring men dressed as angels. A Guy Sebastian performance that rudely omitted Angels Brought Me Here.

And all that’s old was apparently new again for Seven – or maybe just plain old, if you agree with this piece by James Colley – with the revival of early noughties classics like Big Brother and Farmer Wants a Wife. New CEO James Warburton was upfront and honest, proving that a network, and a (new) leader, can display strength while admitting weakness. The screens were big, perfect canvases upon which to splash tight, punchy reels. Clever storytelling tied into the overall theme: Tokyo 2020 (of course). And talent was used imaginatively – Rebel Wilson promoting Pooch Perfect with her trademark humour, respected sports journos introducing Olympic athletes to the stage, and top-tier newsreaders recounting the biggest stories of the year.

But what stuck for those controlling the purse strings – media buyers? What wowed, disappointed, and left them hopeful for what next year could look like for their clients?

Michael Bass, Amplifi’s chief investment officer

Survivor was “leaps and bounds ahead of the rest”, and “best-in-class in the reality genre” in 2019, according to Bass. The Masked Singer was another high point in a TV landscape where “the networks seem to have an obsession with nostalgia”.

“It’s nice to tip the hat to old formats, but fresh ideas, executed well, will bring in new audiences,” Bass says.

“I often feel that the free-to-air broadcasters have been doing the same thing over and over and are expecting a different result. Many existing program formats are stale, new formats are mostly poorly executed and there are far more misses than hits.”

Before joining the Dentsu Aegis Network, Bass worked at Ten

But the upfronts left Bass optimistic. Ten is getting momentum, with quarter one next year “their biggest opportunity in years to build audiences from week one”. Nine’s scale post the acquisitions of Fairfax and Macquarie Radio “provides audience insight that few others can provide” and “is a strong market proposition”. And Seven’s proposed refresh is “desperately needed”.

“People who suggest that FTA television (or television in general) is dead, do so at their own peril,” Bass explains.

“Yes, linear television has experienced audience declines over the years, but there is remarkable progress in the screens space.”

Despite the optimism, Bass notes that he didn’t see any of the networks “hit it out of the park” with programming slates that were instead “fairly conservative and familiar”.

“We have some tentpoles that have been refreshed, some tired old formats that have been recycled and revived and then much of the same,” he says.

“The ratings these programs deliver may be adequate, but they are unlikely to significantly grow audiences. There were a few little gems like Mega Mini Golf, but I was hoping to see a lot more new, fresh and different content. Some innovative new genres would have been wonderful to see, rather than copycat programming.

“I’m not sure we were lacking content in the dating and cooking genres, so probably didn’t need more of the same.”

While he doesn’t think the upfronts will shift where he spends, Bass acknowledges how he spends might change post-upfronts. And he’s interested in how players like Foxtel will compete.

“The amount of content available on [the broadcast video on demand platform] is quite astounding and when I look at the growth and scale BVOD is getting nationally, it’s quite a compelling proposition. What is particularly interesting from a media buyer’s perspective is that it’s starting to dilute Foxtel’s proposition. Foxtel has been stuck at around 30% penetration for years,” he observes.

“It will be interesting to see how Foxtel respond to this shift, but FTA [free-to-air] television have taken back the driver’s seat to lead the conversation about delivering audiences at scale. Momentum is flowing their way right now.”

Nicola Lewis, Group M’s chief investment officer

The upfronts were more distinguishable from each other than in previous years, and the proposed demand-side platform is up there on Lewis’ list of highlights. Seven boss Warburton said his network will “100% back it” if agencies feel it’s the right solution, but noted he’s already heard arguments over whether it’s the right move. Lewis says it needs to be “useful and effective”.

“We need all the broadcasters to guarantee they are actually working on it together to deliver a useful and effective product for agencies and for the betterment of our industry,” she says.

“They need to ensure they are all present in the one platform.”

Seven “presented a complete reinvigoration of content under James [Warburton]” and were “really shining a light on content”. The new formats will “bring people into the Seven ecosystem and then spread them out across each of their platforms”.

“Seven also made a big play about being the easiest network to deal with for buyers, which is music to the ears of every media agency,” Lewis notes.

“We are nothing but excited about CODE 7 and looking forward to working with the Seven team to leverage it for our clients.

“I think 7 CAP is brilliant – it’s really powerful and it’s a genuine tech innovation. The power is that it’s in the linear TV environment and will enable clients to think dynamically about linear TV so I’m really excited to hear more about it and engage with it on behalf of Group M clients.”

Nine’s strength is in its well-performing programming slate working even harder next year, according to Lewis. And changing its pricing to cost-per-completed-view is “smart”.

“The work they have done around single IDs and bringing all their data points together across logged-in platforms is strong. When they talk about scale and precision through data – I believe them,” she says.

Ten, meanwhile, programmed strong for its third and fourth quarters next year, and its emphasis on being the ‘younger’ network rang true – “it’s fresh and authentic”.

“Their tech and data developments were clear, and importantly, real, which in an upfront is important,” Lewis explains.

“I thought their call out that they are the lead network powered by CBS, which gives them scale no other local broadcaster has, was also confident. 2019 was the year of embedding their new working relationship with CBS, and 2020 will be the year of reaping the benefits of their new ownership.”

John Lynch, Havas Media’s head of investment

“You’re not king ding-a-ling” is a line John Lynch won’t forget from this year’s season of Married at First Sight. But heading into the upfronts, he wanted to know: which network is king?

Before heading to the events, Lynch was unconvinced Seven had time to “get younger” since Warburton’s appointment, but says stemming the exodus of younger audiences is key. Ten, meanwhile, needs to capitalise on the success of The Masked Singer.

“Expect many, many extensions of this franchise. Masked Masterchef perhaps. Maskerchef,” Lynch quips.

“MAFS will no doubt do some great numbers if it survives the growing backlash. It may simply feed off it. It will be interesting to see what they do about local drama. Seachange started with a decent number for the first episode, but fell away. Maybe quality drama is no longer expected on FTA TV. There is so much elsewhere.”

But after the presentation, Lynch predicts new Nine reality format, The Parent Jury, will outperform MAFS. Seven’s Mega Mini Golf looked like a disaster on paper, “then I saw the clips and thought: this is going to be brilliant. It’s essentially Wipeout with golf. I also think SAS Who Dares Wins [on Seven] will be my cup of tea.”

The new Masterchef line up didn’t “grab me”, but “two Survivors is pretty big news and I hope this move works well”.

Attracting audiences over the 1m mark, says Lynch, requires programs that are family friendly.

“This can take the edge off things and make things vanilla but if you can’t watch programming at 7:30pm with the kids, it won’t get the ratings,” he says.

“I think some programs are over-commercialised, but it’s a personal point of view. As long as they’re still pulling in audiences, they’ll stay. It needs to be called out as a reason for audiences choosing other platforms however.”

Lynch is also excited about the united buying platform, which he says “will affect every single client’s TV buys for 2020 and beyond”. And as for what he hoped to see but didn’t?

“When Alan Partridge was desperately trying to get another contract with the BBC, he suggested several programmes to the company’s chief commissioning editor: Cooking In Prison, Youth Hosteling with Chris Eubank and Monkey Tennis,” he says.

“Two of these have already been made. I’m still waiting for someone to take the brave gamble on Monkey Tennis. Nine do have the Australian Open and Taronga – Who’s Who In The Zoo so they’re definitely best placed. Maybe next year.”

Victor Corones, Magna’s managing director

The managing director of IPG Mediabrands’ investment arm isn’t convinced the new lineup of Masterchef judges will pull audiences, especially with former hosts Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston jumping ship to join rival show, Plate of Origin on Seven. Gogglebox and Travel Guides are his favourite shows to “decompress”, but he wants less reliance on reality and more Australian drama, feeling that all networks could have delivered a stronger content pipeline.

However, he’s also eager to see the demand-side platform brought to life.

“Whilst intent was loudly expressed and welcomed, a lot of work is required to fully realise such a concept and have it delivered by the promised 2021 date; no small feat,” he says.

Seven’s proposition – “bold, confident – with a dash of humility” – seems to be enough to forge a comeback from 2019, and offering the Olympics on streaming services will accelerate BVOD uptake (although Corones wanted more developed BVOD strategies from all networks). Its focus on non-Olympics programs is welcome, Corones says, and the “long-awaited” CODE 7 “appears to be closer than ever”.

“After several false starts with this product, the network has no choice but to deliver a seamless product experience in 2020. The pressure is on them,” he notes.

“The new, innovative product 7CAP promises to double ad recall for advertisers who leverage the tool’s contextually relevant targeting capabilities via machine learning. The value exchange, once pricing is overlaid versus claimed benefits, is still unclear.”

As for Ten, Corones has a question: “Can they find another format like Masked Singer?”

Paul Wilkinson, The Media Store’s head of investment

Seven had the most ground to cover, Wilkinson thinks, and “they have really come out swinging”, impressing him the most of the three networks.

“This was a revitalised Seven, full of optimism and the confidence we have come to expect from the network that have proudly displayed “#1” on their positioning for the last 10+ years,” says Wilkinson.

“The key to this is James Warburton’s recent appointment as CEO and he’s obviously wasting no time in shaking things up. Radio assets – sold. Pacific magazines – sold. Both of these decisions are freeing up valuable capital to reinvest into a content schedule which, sport aside, had (by their own admission) become a little stale. There is also the merger with Prime which will create the largest single broadcast network in the country – impressive stuff.”

Cap 7 could be “truly game changing”, and something Wilkinson will be keeping an eye on.

“Predictably for an investment guy like me, the most exciting part of the night was Kurt Burnette’s closing piece: Cap 7, which enables automated contextual ad placement based on imagery within the programming content,” Wilkinson explains.

“This looks like a phenomenal piece of tech and, if it works as described, is a genuine game changer in the world of linear TV. Code 7 is ‘back’ – let’s be honest, it never really worked the first time around, but I have full confidence this time it will. Excitingly, the fact it will plug straight into the proposed industry buying platform is a relief.”

The “combined industry trading platform … will help buying teams all over the country work in a much more efficient way”, but Wilkinson wanted to know more.

“I would have liked to know more about the central dynamic buying platform, launch timeline,” Wilkinson says.

“I don’t want this to be something that was just mentioned and never comes to fruition.”

Overall, Wilkinson was “genuinely excited to see Seven back on form”.

“It’s going to be a big year for them with the Tokyo Games, a whole raft of new programming and improved data capabilities,” he predicts.

“Some of it will work, some of it won’t but at least they are having a go at something different. This is exactly what we have all been asking of them for the last few years. Thank you Seven for listening.”

Andrew Brannaghan, OMD Melbourne head of trading

Brannaghan reckons this round of upfronts were the strongest he’s seen. He wanted a focus on data, tech and innovation, and he got it in the likes of the demand-side platform and automation simplifying the TV buying process.

Ten’s strength was its under 50s strategy, Nine’s its leadership message, and Seven’s its content and tech.

“I’m excited to see Ten continuing the commitment to their under 50’s strategy, creating an alternative for advertisers outside of Nine and Seven. Ten’s investment into data partnerships was expected and will ultimately extend their targeting capabilities across owned assets, creating greater scale for advertisers,” Brannaghan said.

“Nine’s leadership message was clear with premium content, delivered at scale, traded efficiently, along with a continued focus on data targeting. Though it was the non-broadcast innovations that captured my attention, along with the integration of the Fairfax assets into Nine’s portfolio.

“Seven have had a challenging year. The appointment of James Warburton as CEO, the proposed purchase of Prime and the sale of Pacific Magazines are clear examples of Seven looking to change their position in market at pace. They have a clear content-led growth strategy, where they plan to refresh, reinvigorate and grow the 7:30pm timeslot. Tech and innovation are also high on their agenda as they relaunch Code7 and introduce the 7CAP (powered by AWS) offering … Along with the Tokyo Olympics mid-year, this will make Seven a key part of our clients’ media strategies in 2020.”

Brannaghan noted the lack of discussion about streaming giants such as Netflix and the networks’ strategies for mitigating their impact.

“Instead, the focus was placed on defending the competitive advances of Google and Facebook,” he said.

“The other missing topic for me was the lack of commentary relating to 5G and a strategic approach for managing the impact it will have on consumer content consumption.”

As for his favourite show of the year?

“I can’t go past the current season of Australian Survivor. The casting was spot on [and] with countless alliance members being blindsided, you never knew who was going to be voted off until the decision was read out.”

Sarah Keith, Publicis Media Exchange’s managing director

Gogglebox and Have You Been Paying Attention are consistent favourites for Keith, while Lego Masters and The Masked Singer delivered on excitement. She expected to feel that same excitement at each upfront presentation.

“All three networks have the same focus and consistent rating delivery. Seven needs to find more winners, Nine needs to ensure it can maintain its momentum, and Ten needs to capitalise on its strong 7.30pm lineup,” Keith poses.

Previously, Keith was Ten’s head of revenue strategy

“We have seen a renewed confidence in Ten’s schedule and a programmer happy to share the entire year makes a big difference in the perception of the network. It’s great to see Hamish and Andy bringing some levity to Nine, and Seven has two major revamps, plus a great combination of old favourites and some new bets. Holey Moley, aka Golfing Ninjas is my big bet for family viewing.”

But Keith wants less of seeing the same reality stars pop up year in, year out, and more local dramas. She knows it’s expensive to make, but Doctor Doctor and Five Bedrooms “prove there is still an audience”.

“I want to see less recycling of reality stars! It’s going to be interesting who shows up in the Big Brother house and I will bet we recognise some of them,” she says.

“This idea of allowing the audience time and space to get to know new characters seems to have disappeared. Is it because our ever-shortening attention spans can’t be trusted?”

Ultimately, Keith is realistic about the market moving into 2020, but was impressed by the networks’ display of confidence.

“Overall, it’s been a confident upfront season in a very tough market. This helps drive ongoing recommendation of FTA to clients,” she says.

“Next year is going to be another tough one, despite it being an Olympic year. Global economic uncertainty, which will continue until at least Brexit and the next US election are decided, continues to impact consumer confidence and therefore our clients’ businesses.”


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