Major networks will play a supporting role during upfront week

Posted May 10, 2019 2:20 p.m. EDT

— For the major networks, upfront week has traditionally been a chance to put their best feet forward — to try to gin up enthusiasm among media buyers about their upcoming shows before negotiating billions of dollars in advertising sales.

Next week's edition of the annual ritual, however, will find the broadcast networks cast in what amounts to a supporting role.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will still showcase their 2019-2020 lineups during upfront week — NBC and Fox kick off the festivities Monday — along with the CW and CNN parent WarnerMedia.

But their presentations have already receded into larger ones made by their corporate owners. And this year, the networks seem like even less of a headliner: Companies are pivoting away from ad-supported TV and funneling resources and salesmanship into new streaming services that are slated to launch this year and next.

Indeed, Disney CEO Robert Iger said as much earlier this year when he called the launch of streaming service Disney+ — slated for November — the studio's "No. 1 priority."

The networks will also share the spotlight with their parent companies' far-flung assets. In ABC's case, that now include an assortment of Disney-owned networks, such as ESPN, Freeform and the newly-acquired FX and National Geographic.

Upfronts in an era of down ratings

The diminished emphasis on the broadcast networks comes at a moment when they appear to be in collective decline. A proliferation of programming choices has caused ratings to steadily erode, with commercial ratings down almost 25% from three years ago.

Networks have enjoyed gains in delayed viewing, and the picture is somewhat better using "live-plus-seven" ratings, which accounts for the viewing of programs over the course of a week.

Compared to last year — which was, notably, boosted by the Olympics — the combined ratings average for the big four networks is down 7% among total viewers, per Nielsen data, and down 13% among the key demographic of adults age 18-49. That reflects a steeper decline among younger audiences -- the group targeted by most advertisers -- being drawn away from conventional TV.

On the brighter side, because the networks own many of the programs that they air, they capitalize on international sales and digital viewing, which provide additional streams of revenue.

But TV is still king

Still, the upfronts have traditionally been about advertising, with executives pressing the notion that network TV — whatever challenges it might face — remains the most effective tool for sponsors eager to reach a mass audience.

The networks are clearly in a transition period that is fueled by the march toward individual streaming platforms, said Steve Kazanjian, president and CEO of Promax, an organization of entertainment marketing executives.

The challenge, Kazanjian told CNN Business, is determining whether the parent studios are selling the overall company or individual assets. As he put it: "Whether you are positioning yourself as a branded house, or a house of brands, neither one is better than the other, but you have to understand who you are."

The networks can point to encouraging signs from the current TV season, including strong ratings for the NFL and Fox's breakthrough success with the reality competition "The Masked Singer" — demonstrating, as executives are fond of saying, that the pipes still work. That's true not only in prime time, but also with the popularity of late night franchises like "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Show With Stephen Colbert."

Even newer players are feeling their way in terms of how advertising figures into their plans. YouTube, for example, recently backed off from a subscription-based strategy for its original programming in favor of a free, ad-supported model. In unveiling those plans, executives cited YouTube's broad audience reach and a desire to go against the grain when other media companies are busy erecting paywalls.

The upfronts remain a focal point for the industry as conglomerates seek to convince media buyers that broadcast TV — even in its diminished state — remains the most effective tool to reach consumers.

The big difference for the networks lies between being upfront week's golden child and, as it now appears, just another mouth to feed.