With TV flare digital outlets try a broadcast rite

NEW YORK | 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 prime time?

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 such as 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,” said 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?” said 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,” Mr. McCarus said. “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,” Ms. McPherson said. “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,” said Nicholas Lehman, president of digital for NBCUniversal entertainment and digital networks and integrated media division.

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