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What the Hell Are TV Upfronts? A Brief Explainer

If you’re confused by the annual ad derby, let’s get you up to speed

Upfront season is once again upon, raising the age-old question: What the hell are upfronts anyway?

Fear not, TV consumers. TheWrap has you covered. Upfronts are annual presentations in New York made by television networks to sell commercial space for the upcoming season ahead of time, or “up front,” to advertisers. Networks try to wow potential advertisers with their pilot slate, as well as the strength of returning shows.

Sounds simple, right? Trust us, it’s not. Billions of dollars are in play, and broadcast and cable networks find themselves having to make a strong case as to why they’re still relevant in the days of digital and user-generated content.

So why are advertisers willing to invest in shows that haven’t even premiered yet? Because television ads are still an incredibly effective means for advertisers to reach large audiences quickly, even as digital advertising continues to grow.

If you have a product that is going to launch in, say, September, you want to be sure that you have ad time locked up beforehand. And when shows like “Big Bang Theory” continue to draw over 10 million viewers a week, that’s more than enough eyeballs to justify the spending ahead of time.

But beyond the business side of things, upfronts are also major social events in the media world. All the big companies and networks throw lavish parties, often featuring network stars and entertainers. Fans can also get in on the fun by hanging around outside the venue to sneak a peek at their favorite celebrities.

Nowadays, though, the digital upstarts are starting to take over the upfronts. In years past, networks could sell ad time around nothing more than Nielsen ratings. Today, advertisers expect more bang for their buck and want to know about things like social media and digital platform presence as well.

A recent ComScore study found that people under the age of 35 spent more time on a mobile device or a computer than they did watching live TV in the final three months of last year.

In fact, the study found that mobile is quickly approaching equal status with live TV among millennials. That demographic spends 47 percent of its time with live television, while mobile accounts for 40 percent.

The study also noted that while primetime TV has been the advertising medium that marketers use to reach the largest audiences, top digital media properties can also achieve a similar, if not larger, reach over the course of a single month.

It found Facebook reached an audience of 219 million people in November, which beat the primetime reach of all the broadcast networks except for one. Google sites, which include its dominance in search as well as its massive video site YouTube, trumped all the broadcasters’ primetime audience with 247 million.

 So how will this growing trend impact the 2016 upfronts? Stay tuned and follow TheWrap’s in-depth, up-to-the-minute coverage to find out.