Guess what Big Media pitched the ad guys

Dolly Parton performs at the NBC Upfront Presentation, May 11, 2015.
Peter Kramer | NBC | Getty Images

If you missed this year's upfront presentations—the annual events where linear TV networks trot out their upcoming programming for potential advertisers—here are some key takeaways from the events that wrapped up this week.

The upfront market will be slightly down

This year, several sources say they expect the upfront broadcast and cable ad inventory buying markets—which lasts between when the network presentations occur through about July 4—to be about 1 percent to 2 percent lower than last year.

Despite the downturn, it's slightly good news. Last season, media analytics firm Media Dynamics had pegged the ad buyer commitment to the 2014-15 season at $18.1 billion, a 6 percent to 7 percent decline from the previous season.

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Another positive? Jesse Redness, co-founder of media strategy firm Brave Ventures, believes that many advertisers may be saving their money for the scatter market, which is the time after July 4 when remnant ad inventory is sold. Because several networks unveiled new cross-screen targeting initiatives using big data, he said many media buyers may be waiting to see how well these programs work before committing dollars.

Networks are harnessing the power of big data

Speaking of big data, many networks reaffirmed their commitment to evolving to fit the digital space by offering new advertising options that allow brands to target consumers on different devices using the data that they and their partners glean through various platforms. Marketers who were concerned that too many eyeballs were shifting away from watching live linear broadcast programming can now fine-tune their buys to target the right mix of a network's consumers, no matter on what screen they are watching.

For example, Turner Broadcasting's Turner Data Cloud is the media company's new data management platform that will let marketers launch their digital and linear campaigns across the entire family of Turner networks through direct or technology-led programmatic means.

Meanwhile, NBC Universal touted its partnership with Comcast, saying it would allow advertisers to access information on consumers derived through the cable provider's set-top boxes. The data will help supplement NBCU's audience targeting platform, a program announced in January 2015 that leverages first and third-party data to help brands reach the demographics they desire on the media conglomerate's properties. NBCUniversal is the parent of CNBC.

ESPN also announced that it would be working with Cablevision to use the cable company's census-level audience insights for further understanding into consumer behavior to inform more accurate cross-screen targeting.

Upfronts are making way for newfronts

This year's upfronts, which are notoriously lavish presentations and parties that ostentatiously show off a network's worth, were slightly toned down from previous years.

While the main networks still rented out landmark theaters in New York with all the regalia, many of the cable networks preferred to have private one-on-one meetings with their clients, including AMC and SyFy or held a combined presentation with the rest of a media company's properties such as A&E Networks and Turner Broadcasting. Several sources remarked that the events that took place seemed less flashy than the opulence of previous years, maybe a sign that last year's 2014-15 market didn't perform as well as expected.

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On the flip side, the so-called digital content newfronts presentations—the digital video industry's response to the upfronts, where online video networks and producers highlight their upcoming programming and ad offerings—were more in demand than last year, with 35 companies presenting. Although many participants (which included Google's YouTube, BuzzFeed, Vice Media and Disney-owned Maker Studios booked smaller venues, lines wrapping around the establishments suggested that they would have been able to fill just as much space as the main broadcast networks. In fact, the line rejected from BuzzFeed's presentation due to space stretched about one city avenue block.

Networks are forsaking millennials

Perhaps a sign that networks are paying close attention to the studies that say millennials (19- to 34-year-olds, per Pew Research Group) are not watching TV—a January 2015 Forrester Research report said only 40 percent of U.S. millennials watch live TV each month—many networks seemed to skew older with their 2015-16 programming.

Fox unveiled two comedies starring Rob Lowe and John Stamos, the latter of which plays a grandfather, mind you. NBC highlighted "Crowded," a comedy about empty-nesters starring Patrick Warburton and Carrie Preston. Even ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee slightly joked that he didn't understand millennial tastes when he said its twisted crime drama "Wicked City" was its highest-testing pilot with the millennial demographic.

"What's wrong with those guys?" he commented at the ABC upfront presentation.

Need more evidence? NBC treated its attendees to a performance by Dolly Parton, Fox let attendees go home to a song-and-dance number from its upcoming "Grease" live musical special and ABC tapped Montell Jordan to sing "This Is How We Do It," which was a hit in 1995.

Never mind, networks aren't forsaking millennials

Admittedly, every network mentioned at least one millennial-leaning show, although sometimes it wasn't exactly clear why this programming was going to appeal to the young adult group, especially since some of it felt very dated. Fox's "Minority Report," for example, is based on a movie that came out in 2002.

Not everyone was willing to write millennials off. CBS led with a mostly millennial-targeted slate, reaffirming their commitment to the age group with shows including its new late night programming with Stephen Colbert and its superhero drama "Supergirl." It also announced it was killing off CSI this year, while reminding media buyers it was just slightly behind NBC when reaching adults in the 18-to-49 demographic last season.

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CW hammered, in the fact that they were all about the millennials, with more superhero programming including DC's "Legends of Tomorrow," musical comedy "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and the Vampire Diaries spinoff "The Originals."

If investors are really looking for networks that are targeting this coveted demographic, every single newfront presenter mentioned how much their content was reaching millennials at least 30 times. Remember those millennials who were watching only 40 percent of their linear TV live according to the Forrester Research study? Turns out 55 percent of them are still watching four or more hours of TV on a TV screen, and 34 percent are watching four or more hours of TV online. The message: Don't write off television and video programming just yet.