With TV flare digital outlets try a broadcast rite

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NEW YORK (AP) — Internet video wants some of television's ad dollars, and it's not above a little copycatting to help the cause.

Beginning Thursday, many of the top digital outlets will for the first time band together to try an old TV tradition: the upfront. Over the next two weeks, YouTube, Yahoo, AOL, Hulu and others will hold their version of the annual pitch to advertisers to promote their programming.

By taking a page from TV, the Digital Content NewFronts, as they're called, hope to showcase increasingly high-quality Web series and convince advertisers that digital video deserves more of their attention.

Is digital content ready for primetime?

Most of the companies hosting a NewFront have considerably invested in original content. YouTube spent $100 million to create nearly 100 niche-oriented channels. Hulu, which has waded into original programming in addition to its vast library of network shows, has partnered with filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Morgan Spurlock. Yahoo has teamed with Tom Hanks for a highly-anticipated animated sci-fi series.

"This first time is really about perception change, in my mind," says Erin McPherson, head of original programming at Yahoo. "If real dollars flow from it, that's gravy."

Hulu will kick things off with its presentation Thursday in New York. Another 15 events will follow through May 2.

The NewFronts were created by the ad agency Digitas, which organized the founding partners — Google Inc.'s YouTube, Microsoft Advertising, Hulu, Yahoo and AOL. Those companies as well as MSN, Vevo, NBCUniversal Digital Media and Disney Interactive will tout their shows in presentations intentionally scheduled shortly before the network upfronts in May.

"What better time to showcase it than three weeks ahead of the television upfronts?" says John McCarus, senior vice president and director of brand content at Digitas. "It's driven by the budget cycles from a marketer's perspective. This is the time of year they're starting to think about how their dollars are going to be spent."

Last year, online video was approximately a $2 billion business in the U.S., a fraction of the $60.7 billion spent on TV advertising, according to research firm eMarketer. But online video ad spending is fast increasing, and many expect it to reach $3 billion this year.

"It's a watershed year," says McCarus. "There is an opportunity and a reason to collaborate together and show strength in numbers for what is a newly formed marketplace."

Like many of the other participants, Yahoo hopes to simply inform advertisers of its business. By capitalizing on its considerable traffic, Yahoo has lured viewers to its now robust original video offerings. It churns out more than 40 series a month.

"It's been hard to buy digital," McPherson says. "We're fragmented. We all use different methods of measurement. We all have different stories to tell, and our upfronts, so to speak, are all year round, all the time."

Whereas the broadcast product is easily visible (at the same weekly times, at the same place on the TV dial) and is rated by a standardized system, digital media's landscape is more diffuse.

"The big goal for us is to educate the marketplace," says Nicholas Lehman, president of digital for NBCUniversal entertainment and digital networks and integrated media division.

Lehman will be highlighting NBCUniversal's varied digital portfolio, including Fandango, iVillage and DailyCandy, as well as online content related to NBC broadcast programming.

Lehman is perhaps in a unique position among the NewFront presenters, given that his company is also a major TV network — and thus very much in the crosshairs of some NewFront presenters.

"We think the platforms are all complimentary if we execute the right way," says Lehman. "We've seen a lot of success in how we can reinforce on-air ratings with digital platforms, with digital engagement, and vice versa. If used the right way, it can be very symbiotic."

Though NBC shuttered its Digital Studios last year, Lehman pledges NBCUniversal Digital will be making announcements around original video content at the NewFronts.

Presenters are largely saving their news for the stage, but many are expected to unveil new programs. Talent will be trotted out. Altogether, it will be a moment for digital to show that it's ready to play on TV's stage.

McCarus even envisions the scales tipping the other way: "In five years, I wouldn't be surprised if the broadcast networks started to participate in the digital content NewFronts as this becomes the clear winning game."

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