« Back to Posts


As Streaming Wars Rage On, Don’t Sleep on Linear TV

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.

Bill Wise is CEO at Mediaocean. This article is part of our Thought Leaders Circle initiative to open up TV[R]EV to a wide range of respected industry voices.