The Association of Commercial Television


You’ve seen the headlines:

“Streaming won the pandemic.”

“Adoption surged over the last year.”

“Viewing up across all categories and age groups.”

And now:

“Amazon is buying MGM Studios.”

Today, the world’s best content is being organized around and produced for an over-the-top (OTT) distribution. There’s no question that, in an increasingly fragmented and omnichannel landscape, streaming has rapidly emerged as a critical part of it. But it would be a huge mistake to simply write off linear TV as a relic of the past. Linear TV is still very much here, it’s still hugely valuable to marketers, and it’s not going anywhere for a long time.

By all accounts, this past year was unprecedented in terms of new streaming services launched by major broadcasters, from Peacock and HBOMax to Paramount+ and Disney+, collectively representing the lion’s share of content that once lived exclusively on linear TV. And, thanks to the closure of theaters, even premier Hollywood releases now launch directly to the small screen.

As we consider the 2021 TV Upfronts, it’s a good moment to pause and put things in perspective. The shift toward streaming is real; it is a macro, secular shift, and it is accelerating. But, rather than view streaming as replacing linear, we should be focusing on how the two can work together and in concert with digital, social, and everything else.

Why TV Still Matters

Strong Viewership: Overall, viewership is declining on linear TV. Those impressions are moving to mobile and streaming. But we make too much of the trend, and forget to see how full the proverbial glass still is.

Linear TV still commands massive audiences, and it remains one of the few – if not the only – ways to obtain this kind of reach. For any growing brand, TV represents a full-funnel opportunity to find new audiences while supporting the brand.

Contextual and Targetable: Spurred by intensifying privacy regulation, more and more of the internet is moving to probabilistic (ie. cohort-based) and contextual targeting. Both are viewed as strong alternatives to PII-based targeting or cookies.

The reprioritization of probabilistic and contextual holds great promise for digital. It also happens to be what linear TV already offers today. Smart TV data can target to a household level (read: probabilistic), and when compared with programming and daypart, provides a strong signal against which to deliver more relevant ads.

Clean, Brand Safe and Premium: In digital, billions are spent each year ensuring brand safety and protecting against fraud. While real progress has been made in recent years, most marketers now accept that a certain amount of fraud is routine, and those advertising on social networks against user-generated content accept that there will always be a degree of risk for suitability.

Against that backdrop, consider that linear TV has had a mature infrastructure, complete with its own government agency, for regulating the quality of content. Those who produce it are identifiable and accountable. Routine purchase agreements contain protections and indemnities that would count as among the most stringent in digital.

In recent months, we’ve seen a number of troubling disclosures that show the threat of fraud in CTV is very real. The intricacies of Server-Side Ad Insertion (SSAI) provide cover for nefarious actors to pose as legitimate publishers and reap the benefits. Linear, which doesn’t rely on SSAI, is by contrast virtually impossible for fraudsters to penetrate. If linear TV were a new platform with this many viewers and this kind of mature, sophisticated standard for accountability and protections, how would it compare to the hottest emergent OTT offering?

Upfronts Still Make Sense

Advertisers get this – and their dollars speak for them. Demand for linear TV continues to outstrip supply, particularly so today as entire sectors come back online. Linear inventory is scarce, and that scarcity will always be unique and appealing. Compare that to streaming, where each session generates its own inventory. Even as streaming becomes a bigger part of the sales pitch at the Upfronts, the convention is ultimately always based on the fact that premium linear inventory is scarce and worth securing in advance.

Connecting The Dots

Streaming has no doubt become a larger part of the Upfronts this year and will for every year to come. And that does portend new challenges for advertisers, forcing them to become more omnichannel in their approach than they are today. Streaming is big, yes. But linear isn’t going away. The future is where they intersect, and in the tools that allow advertisers to plan, buy, and measure these disparate channels in a single view, with standardized measurement and centralized data.

So much of the attention has been paid to streaming, and for good reason. It’s exciting and new. But with every new channel that emerges, linear TV redefines its relationship with the omnichannel equation.



Marketing today is more closely tied to business growth than ever before. Businesses demand a direct link between campaigns and new customers, increased orders and, of course, revenue growth. This accountable approach to marketing is buoyed by digital advertising’s ability to track vast amounts of data. How often is a display ad clicked? Which paid search keywords are driving the most traffic to your website? Answering these questions creates a sense of certainty around our efforts. We know what’s working. The proof is in the numbers. 

But such data-based proof is also regularly found in favor of TV campaigns. The idea that traditional channels can’t drive accountable results is an unfortunate misconception. Performance marketers often find success on TV. And before you imagine a 1980s late-night infomercial, know that a well-designed campaign can benefit both your brand and business. However, developing such a campaign involves asking three important questions: 

1. What does your commercial ask viewers to do? 

Does your commercial ask viewers to act on the information you’ve given them? If an immediate response is a priority, your ad’s creative should include a call to action. Sure, a Coca-Cola ad may feature nothing but a polar bear and a jingle, but not every brand has Coca-Cola’s long-standing reputation or ability to wait months, even years, to reap the rewards of their campaign.

To see an immediate return on your ad spend in the short term, be specific about what you’re asking consumers to do. Perhaps that means listing your website’s URL at the end of the ad or asking viewers to text a number to learn more. Think about your audience and offering. Does it make sense for viewers to call a 1-800 number or head straight to your website? Would a promo code help entice potential buyers? I recommend testing a few options to discover what works best. Something as small as the wording of an offer can dramatically affect campaign success. 

2. How are you measuring response? 

Begin measuring performance by tracking the most deterministic indicators of change. Are you seeing a higher number of calls or texts post-launch? Has your web traffic increased? TV attribution can get as granular as looking at web lift within the minutes immediately following a specific airing. And as technology advances, measuring TV is becoming even more like measuring digital, enabling brands to see responses from individual households. Automated Content Recognition (ACR) data can identify the type of viewing platform, location, viewer profiles and even viewing behavior, including ad consumption. 

After a few weeks, you should also begin to see secondary effects. Your web traffic composition may shift to account for TV’s impact on paid search, direct and organic traffic. Because TV contributes to these sources (compared to sources like social media), they should account for a greater percentage of your total traffic. Your overall number of new customers should also increase, even as conversion rates improve. After all, a customer who visits your website after seeing a commercial on TV has already shown enough interest in your brand to intentionally respond. This means they are more likely to make a purchase. 

3. How can you optimize your campaign for greater success? 

An accountable campaign requires awareness both of what’s working and what’s not. Being able to directly track success means you also recognize and address failure. If a specific keyword isn’t driving responses, try something else.

The same should be true for TV. As your campaign airs, evaluate performance across different networks. Maybe you notice airings on one network experienced a strong response, but airings on another had little to no impact. Or perhaps airings during the evening perform better than those during the day. Adjust your campaign to account for these new insights. Lean into flexibility and continue to optimize performance throughout the duration of your campaign. If you’re taking time to invest in TV in the first place, it’s worth doing right. 

Too often I’ve seen brands rule out TV advertising because they’re not sure how they’ll link it to clear business results. Answering the questions above can help reassess the viability of TV for your brand by rethinking the channel with accountability in mind. Over the years, I’ve seen TV campaigns drive accountable results for businesses of all types, including those that had previously focused on digital or had tried TV unsuccessfully using traditional strategies. With the right strategy, there’s so much opportunity to be found. 



Tech-savvy consumers demand 24/7 entertainment at the touch of a button—anytime, anywhere

The current TV landscape has transformed as viewing habits have changed, streaming giants battle it out for subscriptions and new players and emerging direct-to-consumer offerings enter the fray, shaking up the status quo.

In an always-connected era, consumers are tech-savvy and demand round-the-clock entertainment at the touch of a button—anytime, anywhere. And they want it at the best value for money possible. Since the turn of the century, we have seen the dramatic rise of on-demand content services and major changes in the way consumers want to access content across multiple devices—place and time shifting. 

Moreover, the way in which audiences are willing to pay for this content is also evolving.

Traditional TV advertising remains the principal revenue source for content owners and service providers, totaling $166 billion in 2019. But revenues are declining—in 2020, there was a 12% year-over-year fall, due partly to the impact of Covid-19. Although starting from a lower base, OTT video ad spend is on a healthy growth curve.

On the subscription side, traditional cable and satellite pay-TV revenues are also declining, with subscriptions set to fall to just a 40% share of TV services in 2026, compared to 81% in 2016. In contrast, spend on OTT subscriptions rose 34% in 2020—in the U.S. market, consumer spend is set to reach $76 billion by 2024

Although the various forecasts differ by a few percentage points, a likely picture is that OTT subscription and ad revenue will eventually eclipse all other sources of income—with some estimates suggesting $221 billion by 2025


On the production side, content costs are increasing as new media players enter the bidding for key producers, brands and sports rights. In response, traditional media is consolidating to secure intellectual property, reduce overhead cost and pool technology investments.

However, further back in the content supply chain, rights owners and content creators are bypassing incumbent distributors and creating direct-to-consumer OTT offerings. Sports TV is a key battleground with players like Formula One, MLB and NHL all creating domestic and global offerings that remove a layer of distribution and capture a greater share of revenue directly from consumers.

These early pioneers are not alone. Individual and small-scale content creators are growing, enabled by low-entry barriers for semi-professional production and low-cost distribution models that utilize platforms including YouTube, Twitch and Patreon.

It is a complex and fast-evolving landscape—difficult to navigate for traditional broadcasters that have to fend off rivals from the world of telecommunication that see “content” as an opportunity to create stickier broadband and 4G/5G bundles. At the same time, broadcasters are up against internet rivals who are jostling for the number one spot with different goals such as supporting retail sales via “Prime-Style” subscriptions or tying users into walled garden ecosystems like Apple or Google.

Broadcasters, caught between a rock and a hard place, are trying to attract and retain eyeballs to support advertising revenue and ultimately create innovative, unique content that not only consolidates traditional viewership but engages new audiences. In short, the market is in a state of flux. Over the course of the next few years, we will see who comes out on top—and those who struggle to adapt to this changing landscape.


However, several interesting trends are worth further investigation. One of the areas where traditional broadcasters have retained a consistent viewership is within the news. 

The three main news networks in the U.S. have experienced only a mild decline in viewership over the past three years, primarily due to the rise of alternative news sources such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. What is more interesting is at the local level. The Pew Research Centre for Journalism and Media showed that local TV news is still more popular than national news networks, and the hours-per-day of local TV news consumption has grown by 62% between 2013 and 2018. 

Although traditional local TV advertising revenues have declined over the last few years, digital advertising around news content has seen strong double-digit growth leading to only a marginal overall shortfall.  

These data points suggest an overall positive growth trend for local TV news and point to an optimistic future. Local news can harness opportunities in new technology and innovative Electronic News Gathering (ENG) methods to power more news quantity, quality and diversity, while internet networks can provide a greater reach for localized news and enhance cost-efficiencies.


The localization trend also plays into the other big success story for traditional TV—live sports. Although the world’s two most popular sports leagues, the NFL and English Premier League, have seen a multi-year decline within their home nations, audiences have increasingly tuned in from around the globe.  

For example, the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup was the most watched sporting event of that year, with the tournament achieving a cumulative live audience of 1.6 billion viewers. And in esports, international viewership is surging — live streaming audiences are set to hit 920 million by 2024, growing approximately 10% year-on-year.

Sports that may have been too niche for traditional TV in the past—such as formula E, MMA, darts, rowing and competitive cycling—have found audiences on DTT, cable and increasingly OTT services where they can support an FTA (free-to-air) model that is backed up by digital advertising. Local sports—as grassroots as a town’s football, cricket or rugby club—may well tie into the desire for local news delivered via OTT, as long as production costs can be kept low and the production quality can remain acceptable to viewers.


The current TV landscape is exciting—success is up for grabs for those who are willing to innovate. Increased localization opportunities and future-proofed distribution models present just some of the promising avenues for growth. The digital revolution has ushered in a consumer shift that is forcing many to reevaluate their business structure, and media players now face more competition than ever before. 

For more than a year, our industry has witnessed the economic impact of the global pandemic, and in that time, data points and longer-term trajectories may have been skewed. The status quo between content producers, distributors and consumers has irreversibly changed, while innovation in future-ready production and distribution models has accelerated. Right now, media players need to be bold to stay ahead of the curve—and to shape a successful roadmap for the future.



The world is slowly showing signs of normalcy, and as we move toward summer, we may also watch less content on the big screen in our homes. During the height of the pandemic, we gobbled up mountains of content across streamers, on-demand, on CTV, and what not. But it’s likely this trend will be affected going forward by all of us going outside, maskless and fearless, empowered by being vaccinated and knowing one in two adults (roughly) are, too.

The smallest of screens, our phones, are probably least affected as a result. Always on and always there, the phone will continue to serve as the go-to drug to fill any short void in our daily lives with a video snack.

The biggest of screens, cinemas, might see a form of revival because of the pent-up demand to enjoy movies with all the impact of big-screen sound and vision, fueled by a number of potential blockbusters held back for when the world would arrive to the point where we now (almost) are.

But that big screen in your living room and/or bedroom, coupled with all the streaming options you signed up for? Well, that may see some downtime.

Ratings have already plunged, and not just for former ratings champions like the Oscars. Sports is down, as are most regularly screened TV shows. Streaming and CTV have massively grown in share and attention, as well as share of spend on all these services.

Meanwhile, we are entering the upfronts, where the ratings are down and the prices are up. Whaaaaat? That’s right, TV remains the one medium where you get less for more every year, guaranteed. First that was defended by changing the program ratings to a rating+3, adding the additional viewers from the first three days after the original broadcast. Then that became a rating+7.

And now nobody knows exactly how to defend the ratings decline and price increase anymore. So the argument is rightly shifting to where it should have been all along, which is dissecting TV’s effectiveness versus all those other screen options.

It’s here that TV continues to outshine most everything else. Per a new summary document prepared by The Global TV Group, TV clearly demonstrates its superior effectiveness. From study after study across the world, from Australia to the U.K. to Germany to the U.S., TV is found to be more effective, driving better ROI, higher short-term and long-term sales, brand effectiveness and more.

This is exactly what advertisers should care about, and what should influence their budget allocation. It is exactly what agencies should spend time analyzing so they can help guide a marketer’s investment across screens.

Alas, TV is not sexy. Instead, marketers and their agencies want to discuss how to participate in the podfronts (yes, that is now a thing!). They debate how much money to allocate to Clubhouse vs Twitter Spaces, and how much should be spent on YouTube Shorts, the TikTok competitor.

My plea is this: Invest where your audience is and where you know you can generate meaningful impact, instead of making assumptions about where you think, hope or dream they are going to be.



As life outside our homes shut down, the small screen became our treasured path to safe escape

Back in March, while my son and his friends were enjoying a chilly morning of socially distanced outdoor fun at a campground, all the dads lingered near the fire our kids had built. We spent a few minutes catching up on how we’d all been dealing with one year and counting of pandemic life. Then, the conversation turned to where it inevitably has since the lockdown began: television.

The other dads all seemed like genial suburbanites. Their face masks, though, hid not just droplets, but the desperate fiending of TV junkies who had gone too long since their last binge. They needed recommendations, and they needed them with greater speed and specificity than I could provide. “What about Ted Lasso?” I’d say, and they would twitch and sputter, “Seen it! What else you got?” Eventually, their eyes began to look so bloodshot and haunted, I worried that the day would turn into my own personal “Pine Barrens” from which I would not emerge — and not just because several of these men had, like so much of the world, used the pandemic as an excuse to finally watch The Sopranos.

Think back to those early days of quarantine. Every form of entertainment, escape, and distraction vanished one by one. First, live sports shut down. Then, concerts and theater. Going to the movies, assuming your state allowed it, was a game of Russian roulette. Whether you were a club-hopper or a museumgoer, options for getting out into the world, seeing and doing things, all ceased to exist.

But then there was television. Sweet, nourishing, unstoppable television. While all other sources of fun hit an extended pause, TV kept right on going, providing a lifeline to the outside world as we began months of sheltering in place. Our relationship with the medium has surely been fundamentally altered by our time locked away from everything and everyone else. Even if we all respond to a post-vaccination world by becoming ferocious extroverts and reckless outdoorspeople, we’ll always have memories of our prolonged stay in front of the small screen during this nightmare, sometimes as the only comfort we could find.

The first quarantine sensation was Tiger King, a docuseries that dropped on Netflix about a week after the quarantine began. A lurid true-crime story involving exotic animals (some of them managed by a guy who called himself Joe Exotic), fluid sexuality, country music, and a murder-for-hire plot, it provided an early outlet for people who wanted a surreal, cracked-mirror reflection of our world rather than the terrifying version they could glimpse outside their windows. It was also an ethical and journalistic quagmire, even more so than the next big lockdown hit, The Last Dance. A 10-part hagiography of Michael Jordan, the ESPN miniseries offered deep archival footage and salty, self-aggrandizing quotes from the man himself that overwhelmed any qualms about the filmmakers letting their subject (who also had an executive role via his production company) steer the story. Both series became instantly meme-worthy, with screenshots of Jordan saying “And I took that personally” dominating social media for much of the spring and summer.

Soon enough, our hunger for outsize figures having the kinds of adventures we couldn’t expanded to scripted television. Disney+ made the idea of weekly episode releases cool again with the second season of The Mandalorian and, a few months later, the debut of WandaVision. While both are part of insanely popular movie franchises (Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, respectively), the series took clever advantage of the TV format — WandaVision in particular, since its episodes often played as fantasy versions of classic sitcoms. The steady stream of episodes kept people talking as if they were the ones getting to travel to a galaxy far, far away with Mando and Baby Yoda (Grogu to his friends), or to magically become Wanda’s new wacky neighbor. That hunt for a weekly, larger-than-life fix could sometimes backfire — millions howled in indignation at the stultifying end of HBO’s Nicole Kidman/Hugh Grant thriller miniseries The Undoing (“Why is she in a helicopter now?!”) — but there was still something rewarding about putting in the effort to stick with a story the old-school way.

Of course shows whose episodes arrived all at once still captured our fancy if the characters were colorful enough. If they were English, all the better. The fourth season of The Crown finally reached the modern era of the monarchy, diving into the tabloid-friendly story of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s tumultuous marriage. Meanwhile Bridgerton, an energetic Regency romance and the first Netflix series from superproducer Shonda Rhimes, was a frothy bodice-ripper come to life. Audiences ate them both up like a Sunday trifle. (Even British actors playing American could prove addictive, as chess sales boomed in the aftermath of Londoner Anya Taylor-Joy’s mesmerizing star turn as a teen prodigy in The Queen’s Gambit.) And from just across the Irish Sea came Normal People, the Hulu adaptation of author Sally Rooney’s tale of messy, hot-and-heavy love between two young millennials in Dublin, which suddenly had audiences appreciating sensuous sound design.

Shows that mined the darker side of life pulled us in, too. As the pain and fear of quarantine began to overlap with the world exploding in social-justice protests, several dramas arrived feeling as if they had been created for this precise moment of rage. HBO’s Lovecraft Country (a genre mash-up about a Fifties black family battling monsters both real and supernatural) and Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird (with a fire-breathing, improbably hilarious Ethan Hawke as abolitionist John Brown) delved into historical racist horrors, while I May Destroy You (also HBO) presented a riveting exploration of sexual assault, consent, and healing.

As it became obvious that we would be indoors for the long haul, many sought refuge from the depressing state of the world by turning to shows about nice people. AppleTV+ had its first word-of-mouth hit with Ted Lasso, starring Jason Sudeikis as an unqualified English Premier League coach surprising everyone with an almost superhuman level of kindness. The final season of the heartwarming Pop TV sitcom Schitt’s Creek prompted a new wave of viewers to binge the entire series, about a spoiled, rich family forced to grow up after losing everything but one another. And the remake of All Creatures Great and Small — a gentle drama about a polite veterinarian in the English countryside of the Thirties — arrived on PBS only days after the Capitol insurrection in January, providing blessed relief in its world full of good people and cute animals.

Niceness also fueled one of the quarantine’s first viral hits: Some Good News, a web series hosted by John Krasinski that attempted to live up to its title while bringing in his many celebrity friends. (The show became almost too popular, as vocal fans seemed betrayed when the seemingly DIY project was sold to CBS.) In one episode, Krasinski presided over a virtual wedding for a pair of Office superfans, then surprised them with a video montage of all his old castmates performing the dance from Jim and Pam’s ceremony. It was far from the only cast reunion meant to raise spirits and charitable donations, whether the actors were performing new material set in Covid times (as both Monk and Parks and Recreation did), or simply jumping on Zoom together to reminisce about the good old days.

The pandemic postponed perhaps the most-anticipated reunion of all, as HBO Max was set to launch with the six Friends stars gathered around the old Central Perk couch. Instead, the streamer had to premiere Phoebe-less (and later did West Wing and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunions), entering an increasingly crowded field that also saw Peacock, Paramount+, and Discovery+ debut in lockdown. (Pour one out for Quibi, a streamer meant to provide short videos for people on the go, only to arrive in a world where no one was going anywhere.) In the before times, the sheer tonnage of new shows and new places to see them could feel oppressive. Now, it felt miraculous: absurd abundance in what was otherwise a time of great entertainment famine. As high-profile movies like Wonder Woman 1984, Zack Snyder’s four-hour new version of Justice League, or Steve McQueen’s collection of Small Axe films were released directly to streaming, it began to feel like everything was becoming television.

The streaming explosion also made it easier than ever for people to finally cross off classic shows on their bucket lists. Nostalgia — whether for shows we’d already watched in better days, or older ones we’d been hearing about forever without having the time to get around to them — transformed streamers’ library titles from afterthought to essential. The Sopranos in particular had another cultural moment, as millennials and Gen Z found themselves drawn to the parent series of modern television, finding something painfully recognizable in a show whose protagonist was convinced the best in life was over and all that lay ahead was ruin.

Relatively speaking, there have been better overall stretches of Peak TV than the one that carried us through Covid. And with the prepandemic backlog long since exhausted, the relentless pace and volume of new content has dropped precipitously in recent months. (You’ll have to wait a good while longer for that Game of Thrones spinoff or new seasons of Atlanta, among many others.) That’s OK, though. After two decades of The WireBreaking BadFleabag, and more, nobody needs to be told that TV can be as great as movies, theater, or any other form of art. But where the medium was once derided for playing never-hard-to-get — always on, available at any hour of the day — that ubiquity became the thing we all latched onto to stay safe and sane when the rest of the world turned off.

Thanks, TV. We really, really needed you.