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by Jessica Reese

The Digital Content NewFronts roared into their third year with more sparkle – and substance – than ever. The events, created by founding partners Google, DigitasLBi, AOL, Hulu, Microsoft and Yahoo, were originally a rallying cry and response to networks’ traditional Upfronts in order to court advertisers, media buyers, and planners to shift their dollars toward digital video. This year, the differences between the two platforms were less stark, with the arrival of TV entities such as PBS and Scripps joining comparative veterans Conde Nast Entertainment and The Wall Street Journal. Beyond that, these known TV players as well as the pure digital publishers stepped up to provide what they hoped were measurement and advertising solutions that clients could sink their teeth into. Hulu even called its event an Upfront, while AOL projected "R.I.P TV" at one point during its presentation on two 120-foot-long encircled screens in a Brooklyn warehouse. The sponsor of the 22 events, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), ended the two-week sprawl on Wednesday with the release of a new study reporting that 52 million American adults watch digital video every month, and prefer this type of content over TV news, daytime and sports.

"The rise in quality of the video was really notable," comments Magnet Media CEO Megan Cunningham. "And there was a confluence of brands talking about a social ecosystem; I saw much more originality in how people are using social networks, especially from Vice, AOL, and PBS." [note: PBS is a client of Magnet Media].

Others came away with the same impression. "I really like what Vevo is doing with Certified and the partnership with Twitter Amplify," says Fred Santarpia, Conde Nast Entertainment Chief Digital Officer. "Given the social behavior of rabid fan bases, music video premieres are a type of premium programming that really lends itself well to that type of social execution on a consistent basis. I also think that Buzzfeed‘s participation should catch the eye of incumbents. They didn’t show much, but they understand mobile and social content consumption so well, that once they get really moving with video, I am certain they will be a force in the marketplace."

Dan Goodman, co-founder of digital production company Believe Entertainment Group (In the Booth with Electronic Dance Music DJ Tiesto) co-founder Dan Goodman noticed another major theme. "This year, more than ever, we saw more commitment to getting things off the ground in a substantial way," he tells Cynopsis. "These companies are putting out real dollars and resources to support the content by presenting metrics, supporting ad units, new inventory and cross-channel distribution. They’re also making a lot of infrastructure and ad package plays to carry the content, which is just as important to the commitment to the content itself."

"We heard a lot more about marketing this year than in the past," agreed Santarpia. "Typically all the noise is about the investment in original programming, which we still had of course, but this is the first year I’ve heard major players declare they are investing in marketing their programming [i.e. Hulu]. That, along with the push for more transparency and consistency in measurement is another sign that the digital video space is maturing to look more like traditional TV."

Certainly the top execs and stars teemed the stage this year, especially at Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Crackle. Microsoft kicked things off with a speech from Xbox Entertainment Studio President and TV vet Nancy Tellem and Executive Vice President Jordan Levin. The company showed off a TV series based on its hit video-game franchise Halo and a tech docu-series Signal to Noise, as well as a live-stream of this year’s Tennessee music festival Bonaroo. The tech giant also showcased how the interactive drama Possibilia that features HBO Girls star Alex Karpovksy.

Another big trend this year was the introduction of long-form series from both AOL and Yahoo. CEO Marissa Mayer opened Yahoo’s purple-studded evening, though the bulk of the emcee duties were handled by Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Savitt, who unveiled two comedy long-forms: Sin City Saints from Michael Tollin (Smallville) and Other Space from Paul Feig (Bridesmaids). AOL’s mega-fest taxied nearly 1,700 people across the East River to a Brooklyn venue, which on a particularly stormy day drove many to the in-ferry open bar. AOL CEO and Chairman Tim Armstrong got things rolling at the "theatre-in-the-round" style production, which included appearances from Sarah Jessica Parker (city.ballet.) and Nicole Richie (#CandidlyNicole). The buzzword of the evening, Connected, highlighted the company’s first long-form series with the same title. All 16 new originals were previewed along with the announcement of AOL’s new TV-comparable ratings system from Nielsen called Nielsen Digital Program Ratings.

Crackle happily shocked the crowd with a surprise opener from Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, who plugged his new spoof-detective comedy series Tightrope, which he’ll executive produce for the Sony service. A four-season renewal of Jerry Seinfeld‘s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the new game show Sports Jeopardy! Made Crackle a winner with Cynopsis.com readers: in our NewFronts poll, 65 percent said Crackle’s event was best. "Last year was our first time presenting and we offered up an aggressive slate of original programming," said Eric Berger, GM Crackle and EVP Digital Networks at Sony Pictures Television. "Being able to stand up there and actually show examples of how we delivered against those promises was a major achievement."

Hulu‘s all-star happening, hosted by Cecily Strong (Saturday Night Live) with appearances from Seth Meyers (The Awesomes) and Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) captured the energy of a network upfront more than any other NF offering. Although the streaming service displayed mostly renewals of original series, it was all business when it came to ad tools. Senior Vice President Peter Naylor unveiled the In-stream Purchase Unit with Pizza Hut as its launch partner, Cross Platform Interactive ads with launch partner Corona Extra and the Hulu 360 ad, which recognizes a user’s device type to better target ads.

"The most platform-appropriate advertiser-friendly presentations where from Crackle, Hulu and CNE," observes Rigler Creative‘s Head of Scripted Development & Branded Content (and AOL’s former Head of Video Programming & Originals) Amber J. Lawson. "The opportunity for digital platforms is to leverage the interactivity that the platform provides, and this was missing from most presentations."

Indeed, there’s a ways to go. "The NewFronts don’t create a transaction the way the Upfronts do," Believe Entertainment Group’s co-founder Bill Masterson told Cynopsis. "We still have to find a way to translate a more immediate buying and planning process during the NewFronts, so all of these slates and volumes of content can be digested and a more practical way to generate business."

Although long-form programming was in clear evidence, it’s unclear if it will fuel revenue or is just a case of publishers feeling they need to compete with unmeasured Netflix faves House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Tech giant Google, after all, presented everything but an original series. YouTube touted the platform’s reach, and that its top 500 brands grew their average monthly views by 70 percent. In fact, the Brandcast evening mainly focused on its new advertising platform, Google Preferred, which lets advertisers purchase the top five percent of videos and measure video performance. "[Our audience] is four times more interested in watching ads on YouTube than anywhere else," said Google Vice President of Sales, Americas Margo Georgiadis. "And because they’re choosing to learn about products on YouTube, it influences what cars, phones and beauty products they buy 28 percent more strongly than TV."

In the end, it just might be the intersection of tech and content that develops this marketplace most quickly. For Magnet’s Cunningham, that makes perfect sense. "There was a stronger push this year to use analytics to inform the storytelling process," she says. "That’s the advantage with digital: that data can help inform your programing decisions."

Thank you,
Jessica Reese

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