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Media’s Identity Crisis

May 3, 2016, 12:00 PM UTC
Boom With A View by Erin Griffith: Startups and Venture Capital
Illustration by Aleksandar Savic

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In the heyday of television, it made sense to sell a whole year’s worth of ads in advance, or “up front,” at a glitzy series of events called, appropriately, the Upfronts. That model doesn’t make as much sense in the era of cord cutting, Snapchat, and programmatic advertising that gets bought and sold in split-second algorithmic auctions.

But TV execs keep up appearances nonetheless, and digital video companies even started their own version of the Upfronts, the unfortunately named “NewFronts.” That two-week series of breakfasts, presentations, panels and parties kicked off Monday with The New York Times (NYT) and BuzzFeed, two media companies trying very hard to be something they’re not.

In previous years, BuzzFeed rejected the cheesy hard pitch formula of NewFronts, instead using its event to indoctrinate advertisers about How BuzzFeed Thinks About the World. Consciously or not, it sent a message that BuzzFeed was a tiny bit too cool and authentic and millennial to really care about tawdry salesmanship.

But this year, perhaps spurred by reports casting doubt on the company’s business model, BuzzFeed was in hardcore selling mode. The company’s executives pitched specific videos, showcased specific talent, and even asked for specific categories of advertisers. The event, which put its fast-growing (and highly brand-friendly) food channel, Tasty, front and center, was held in a warehouse four times the size of its prior events. Suddenly, BuzzFeed is dead serious about advertising.

Meanwhile the Times, founded 165 years ago as a newspaper, wants to be a virtual reality company. The company demoed its VR chops with an incredible seven-minute simulation of what it’s like to stand on Pluto, while predicting a “much more visual future” for itself.

I expect a lot more media company identity shifting this week. At a breakfast panel, attendees considered whether it made sense to keep the TV Upfronts separate from the Digital NewFronts anymore. With so much convergence of media, someone asked, “shouldn’t it just be a ‘video front’?” Probably. Then again, if everything is digital, there’s little reason to sell anything “up front” at all.