In April 2004, advertisers tried to remake TV advertising’s annual upfront marketplace. The Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies got roughly 40 brand, agency and TV network executives and even some lawyers in a midtown Manhattan board room, and the group spent five hours figuring out how to change the upfront, according to a MediaPost article published at the time. But nothing came of that meeting.

Now, as the saying goes, change is happening gradually and then all at once. Since the early 1960s, the upfront has been a fixture of the TV business, It is an opportunity for advertisers to lock up TV networks’ finite number of ad slots for relatively low prices in exchange for committing to spend an agreed-upon amount of money with the networks over the following year, year after year. The upheaval to the economy is making the most sacrosanct business practices — the centrality of the office, for example — up for discussion and adaptation. TV is not immune. “TV is the least flexible media type out there,” said one agency executive. That rigidity, which was a benefit to both buyers and sellers in the Old Normal, is now a liability in a world of virus outbreaks, uncertainty about the return of live sports and the critical fall TV schedule.

TV has held onto the upfronts even in the face of the rise of digital channels like search and social that allow advertisers to turn campaigns on and off from one minute to the next. The crisis, however, has pushed TV ad buyers and sellers to make TV advertising more pliable and remake the terms of upfront agreements. The question is whether that will be enough to stave off wholesale change.

“COVID definitely called attention to the lack of flexibility of TV in a way that has always been in the background,” said Stacey Stewart, evp and managing partner of integrated investment at UM Worldwide.

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