Brave Media Ventures Expands with Content Division

Brave Media Ventures is creating a new business arm focusing solely on content investment and creation, called Brave Story Ventures.

The new division, which will be charged with generating programming with an eye on social-friendly fare, will be led Jen Kavanagh, who previously worked in digital media at NBC Universal-owned cable network Oxygen.

“Our aim with Brave Story Ventures is a configuration of how we use social insight and other audience insight to identify ideas, to map out the development of great ideas and also to map out the audiences we think are most likely to gravitate toward them,” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh, who was named President of Brave Story Ventures, felt that the demand for content signaled the perfect time for Brave Media Ventures to create this new arm.

“There’s never been a greater demand for great content than now,” Kavanagh said. “We also know the buying market has grown dramatically. Not long ago it was primarily networks and cable networks that were buying content. Now obviously you can add the entire OTT landscape to that equation as well as brands.”

Brave Story Ventures, which signed with United Talent Agency for representation in all areas, will have three projects in development at launch: “Clarence B. Jones: I Know Who I Am,” the story of the trusted adviser and attorney to Martin Luther King; “Foodstock,” a show that pairs celebrity chefs and musical artists to honor those that combat hunger with food, fun and music. “Foodstock” is from Michael Simon, the creator of VH1’s “Storytellers and director of MTV’s “Ridiculousness” partnered with TV host and multiple award-winning chef Michael Voltaggio. The third show is “Ella the Engineer,” about a 12-year-old computer coder.

“We’re not just producing docu-scripted series, there is going to be lots of ancillary content,” David Beck, co-founder of Brave, said. “Lots of stories that we’ll be able to put out on social. We’ll be able to gather live insights about the various interests people have around this content. That will then help to inform both the storytelling, the way we reach out to various audiences and ultimately how it becomes packaged. It becomes one more input to a great creative process.”

Turning SnapChat Analytics Into Triumph: An Interview With Nick Cicero Of Delmondo

In a world where audience favor constantly changes, Nick Cicero makes sure that his company keeps pace. Cicero, CEO of Delmondo, a multi-platform creator network and technology company, saw that marketers were struggling to find meaningful data inside of newer platforms like SnapChat. “Without formal analytics,” Cicero says, “a complicated platform like SnapChat can be hard for marketers to dive right into.” This is made especially true as native brand analytics do not yet exist.

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 06: In this photo illustration the Snapchat app is used on an iPhone on October 6, 2014 in London, England. Snapchat allows users’ messages to vanish after seconds. It is being reported that Yahoo may invest millions of dollars in the start up firm. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 06: In this photo illustration the Snapchat app is used on an iPhone on October 6, 2014 in London, England. Snapchat allows users’ messages to vanish after seconds. It is being reported that Yahoo may invest millions of dollars in the start up firm. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Which is why Cicero built the Delmondo Product Suite, turning the 6 billion daily views that SnapChat boasts into key metrics that measure how many people are viewing a user’s stories, completion rates and more. In rolling out the Creator Studio Product Suite, Delmondo has married creator content with technology in other brilliant ways. An integration with Levelwaretechnology allows brands to send projects, negotiate contracts and sign legal agreements with creators, streamlining brand and creator collaboration and adding transparency unseen in influencer marketing before.

I sat down with Cicero to talk to him about the future of social media marketing, and how his company became the powerhouse that it is today.

What is the basis of what Delmondo does in the social media marketing space? 

We provide a platform for brands and media companies to find and contract the most relevant influencers to produce content together, and analytics tools to measure the results of that co-created content. We have worked with brands like Jolly RancherPriceline.com20th Century FoxThe Ad CouncilCinnabon, and JBL Audio.

How did you get started with the company? 

I started the company about a year ago. I had just left a job as Director of Client Strategy at Expion (a social software company that was recently acquired by Sysomos) where I worked with media companies like UnivisioniHeartRadio and SyFy on their social analytics strategies using our software. Before that I was working on Livefyre; I was their first strategist and helped build the use cases around their curation technology. Actually, the decision to build Delmondo’s product suite is really inspired by the great experience working on that small team when I was at Livefyre.

On NBCUniversal's Content Investments; PayPal Buys Modest

Symbiosis

Ad Age’s Jeanine Poggi asked some observers what NBCUniversal’s investments in BuzzFeed and Vox mean for advertising. Jesse Redniss, co-founder of media consultant Brave Ventures, says the deals are mutually beneficial. NBCU lends BuzzFeed and Vox credibility as destinations for news, while BuzzFeed and Vox get NBCU closer to millennial audiences and fresher ad strategies (think: native). Alan Wolk, senior analyst at The Diffusion Group, says the investment also creates opportunities for cross-device campaigns. “To combat some of the device usage that takes place during commercials,” Poggi writes, “NBCU can create ad packages that include ads to run on those sites at the same time they are airing on TV.” Read it.

PayPal’s Modest Purchase

PayPal snapped up mobile commerce platform Modest, its first acquisition since becoming a standalone company. Notably, Harper Reed is a Modest co-founder. (Reed served as chief technology officer for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.) Speaking to VentureBeat, Reed says the exit’s about scale. “If we can build a great product, but can’t push this out to millions, then it’s boring,” Reed said. “We found this amazing cheat code to get to scale.” For its part, PayPal will use Modest for contextual commerce. Terms were not disclosed. Read on

Sunny Skies

Digital out-of-home ads are up almost a third since last July, according to recent research. The Journal’s Nathalie Tadena reports that, despite representing only 4-5% of total ad spending, OOH sales have increased at a faster rate than other sectors. The market is bolstered by concerns in TV and digital that ads are easily blocked or skipped. The overall trend is still that TV budgets melt at a glacial pace, but it isn’t just mobile and desktop absorbing the runoff. More.

Spell Data With A “C” 

According to a survey from Experian and Loudhouse Research, more than half of CIOs expect the volume of data they’re responsible for to grow by at least 33% in the next year. The surge of data at brands’ disposal is leading to another addition to the C-suite, as four out of every 10 CIOs without a CDO expect to add a data-specific executive to the top ranks. According to the research, companies with CDOs excelled in using data to drive decision-making and, interestingly, managing exposure to regulatory risk. More via Marketer.

The Daily Startup: Digital Media Veterans Launch BRaVe Ventures

Three media and entertainment veterans have launched BRaVe Ventures, a new enterprise aimed at identifying new technologies that are changing how people consume digital media. The firm was co-founded by Jesse Redniss, a former USA Network executive; David Beck, an executive at Spanish-language station Univision; and Gary Vaynerchuk, a prolific angel investor with early-stage bets on TwitterTumblrUber and other startups who recently launched his $25 million VaynerRSEfund for seed investing. “The entire ecosystem is in flux,” said Mr. Redniss. “Content consumption is changing, and today it’s a whole new paradigm.”

ALSO IN TODAY’S VENTUREWIRE (subscription required):

Udacity has raised $35 million, the latest e-learning startup to raise funding in a growing sector that has seen hundreds of millions invested in a bid to redefine the way people learn. Drive Capital led the round, with participation from existing investors including Andreessen Horowitz and CRV.

Massdrop, which combines e-commerce and bulk discounts with “enthusiast” communities online, has raised $6.5 million in Series A funding led by Mayfield Fund, joined by its earlier backers Kleiner Perkins Caufield & ByersFirst Round Capital and Cowboy Ventures.

Numerify, which helps chief information officers figure out how their IT operations are performing, raised $15 million in Series B funding led by Sequoia Capital, with current investor Lightspeed Venture Partners also participating.

IronSource, which has developed a platform that helps application developers distribute and monetize their apps, has turned to Chinese, American and European investors for a funding round of approximately $85 million.

WiserTogether, which provides treatment comparison software to employers and health plans, has raised $9 million in Series B financing and formed a relationship with medical-cost transparency company Castlight Health.

Inspirato, a travel club that rents high-end vacation homes, has raised $20 million in additional growth financing from new investor W Capital Partners. Prior investors Institutional Venture Partners and Millennium Technology Value Partners also participated.

Kabbage is expanding from small-business loans to personal ones, in a direct assault on ProsperLending Club and other online alternative loan services.

Science, a Los Angeles-based incubator, has purchased PlayHaven’s mobile ad network from Upsight for more than $20 million in cash, Dow Jones VentureWire learned.

(VentureWire is a daily newsletter with comprehensive analysis of all the investments, deals and personnel moves involving start-ups and their venture backers. For a two-week trial, click here.)

ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB:

Tiger Global Raising Another Huge FundTiger Global Management has begun raising another $1.5 billion to invest in private companies, Fortune’s Dan Primack reports, citing sources. The new fundraise comes just five months after it raised its last $1.5 billion pool, making it the quickest fundraising turnaround in recent memory.

Foreign Entrepreneurs Face Israeli Immigration Hurdles. Israel’s tight immigration rules can make getting a work visa extremely difficult, forcing many foreign entrepreneurs to live and work below the radar, often with nothing more than a tourist visa, reports the WSJ’s Amir Mizroch and Orr Hirschauge. That means they have to leave the country every few months to renew the visa–more often than not, driving to the Jordanian border and back.

Google X Founder Sebastian Thrun Departs. The founder of search giant Google’s factory to develop and build “moonshot” technologies, who launched the company’s driverless car project and was the project lead on Google Glass, is no longer a VP and fellow at the company, TechCrunch reports. Thrun also co-founded and currently runs online education startup Udacity.

Another New Health IT Accelerator Opens. Sometimes, it seems like the health IT sector has as many incubators and accelerators as it does startups to enroll in them, VentureBeat reports. Clinical software vendor Athenahealth has opened a new one, called the “More Disruption Please (MDP) Accelerator.”

Venture Debt Giant WTI on Dangers Ahead. The 34-year-old venture debt firm Western Technology Investment has seen a few cycles, and its CEO, Maurice Werdegar, talks to StrictlyVC about the current landscape. Among the interesting tidbits: The firm has done deals with companies right out of Y Combinator, and many of the deals it’s doing are with seed syndicates.

Why Twitter and Facebook Suddenly Want to Handle Your Money. In the space of a recent week, both Twitter and Apple made major announcements about payments, and Facebook has been beta-testing its own “buy” button, which shows up next to posts and ads, allowing users to complete a purchase without ever leaving the network. So what’s behind this race to payments and why do social networks now want in? Ryan Holmes, founder of HootSuite Mediaoffers some thoughts in a blog post for WSJ’s Accelerators blog.

Clinkle Finally Launches App. After 17 months of jokes, $30 million in funding, a talent exodus, layoffs, and product delays, Clinkle got something out the door, TechCrunch reports. Clinkle backers include Accel PartnersAndreessen HorowitzIntelIntuit and Stanford’s StartX accelerator.

Media Vets Start 'BRaVe' Advisory Firm

A trio of media and marketing veterans has formed a new firm to advise big media brands on digital and social media strategy, as well as to invest in and incubate promising technology start-ups. 

Behind the new outfit, BRaVe Ventures, are Vayner Media founder Gary Vanerychuk, Jesse Redniss, formerly SVP, digital at USA Networks, and David Beck, previously general manager of social media at Univision.

The founders’ aim is to use their combined expertise to help both established and emerging companies navigate the digital upheaval across the media landscape. That includes providing consulting services in areas such as multi-screen programming, social TV, mobile and social monetization and partnership development.

“The pace of change in the 'traditional media meets digital, meets social, meets agencies and brands' ecosystem is exhausting, making it increasingly difficult for traditional media/entertainment companies, tech titans, emerging players, and brands to efficiently and profitably navigate,” said Redniss in an email exchange.

That’s where BRaVE (the upper case letters highlighting its founders' initials) comes in.

Redniss refers to the three founders as “thought partners, who actually have the operational expertise to actually accelerate the path to success.” At USA Networks, Redniss was credited with developing innovative social TV and cross-platform initiatives.

Between leaving the cable network in November 2013 and launching BRaVe, Redniss served as chief strategy officer at Mass Relevance, which merged with another social enterprise software business called Spredfast in April.

BRaVe cofounder Vaynerchuk has emerged as a social-media marketing guru in recent years, with Vayner Media’s focus on creating “micro-content” for specific social platforms attracting clients, such as PepsiCo, General Electric, Dove and Del Monte.

In his new role, Vaynerchuk will continue as CEO of Vayner Media, but “will be involved in key business elements and projects at BRaVe Ventures,” according to Redniss. He also suggested that Vaynerchuk would not work on projects for clients that might conflict with those of Vayner Media. Conversely, BRaVe might partner with Vayner Media where its expertise is required.

New York-based BRaVe says it has already taken on advisory work for major media companies and start-ups. In the latter category, the firm has already invested in Clasp.TV, a social TV start-up still in stealth mode, and Mashwork, a social media analytics firm.

While BRaVe is not organized as a venture capital firm, it has financial backing from VRSE, a $25 million fund created earlier this year by Vaynerchuk, Vayner Media and RSE Ventures. The fund has invested in early-stage companies to date including Birchbox, Drizly, Curalate and Medium.

Coffee With Ad Age: Talking Future of TV With Jesse Redniss

There are few people as passionate about the intersection between TV and digital as Jesse Redniss.

Best known for helping to define USA Network's digital strategy, Mr. Redniss has immersed himself in the world of startups and data, looking to crack the code on how traditional media companies can partner with innovative newcomers to evolve the TV ecosystem.

ADVERTISING

Along with David Beck, formerly of Univision, and Gary Vaynerchuck, of Vayner Media, Mr. Redniss formed Brave Ventures in September. The advisory firm and incubator is designed to assist both top media brands and startups on social TV, multi-screen and interactive storytelling.

Most recently Mr. Redniss served as chief strategy officer at Spredfast, a social-media marketing firm.

Mr. Redniss sat down over coffee with Ad Age's Editorial Director Simon Dumenco and TV reporters Jeanine Poggi and Anthony Crupi, to discuss media startups, TV measurement and the future of agencies.

Ms. Poggi: What are some startups that you find interesting right now?

Mr. Redniss: Canvs – looking at the qualitative social analytics. I think any company that's bringing meaning behind metrics. So ignoring volume and actually identifying real meaning behind what people are saying, emotions being shared, and how that maps to brand affinity or brand pillars. Canvs is one of those companies.

Mr. Dumenco: Are you investing in that?

Mr. Redniss: We are investing in that, you can put an asterisk on this. 4C Insights is another company. [Editor's note: Brave is not an investor in 4C Insights.] I think Lance [Neuhauser] and his old product is really interesting; what they are doing with affinity matching between brands and media companies. They are literally identifying who your audience is and who the audiences are on brands and doing the overlay. I think they have something really unique there. There is a company called Umbel, which does something very similar. They are based out of Austin. Another company is NewCoin, which came out of a joint-venture between Univision, Fox Television Stations, and Tribune. NewCoin has been formed to identify a new currency. It is going to include Rentrak data, hopefully it will include Nielsen data, it's going to include social data, digital data, [over-the-top] data and [streaming video-on-demand] data to identify what the currency of their content is and bring that to the market. So I think that is really interesting because that's three major media companies basically saying 'Hey, we are going to help identify what the currency is going to be.'

Ms. Poggi: But how many currencies can we have? Are agencies and clients going to want to trade on multiple currencies?

Mr. Redniss: I completely agree. You have different brands having different [key performance indicators] and putting them against different metrics. When you blend everything together and say, 'What is the real value of social engagement? Well, is that a social engagement on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat? What is going to be the next evolution of the [gross rating point]? I think you are going to find over the next a couple years that the GRP is still going to be the core currency, but I think there is going to be ways that you can tweak it and the GRP can have more meaning.

Every network at the last upfront had talked about the eventizing everything. So you are basically eventizing everything because you want to capture that live rating… But how are you activating somebody from the television screen to this screen (points to smartphone) to get that real engagement to last? That's what they care about. It's not so much about the Twitter buzz, it's how it gets somebody engaged with the real story I want to tell on the mobile device. When you can identify exactly how you bottle that, that's the currency; the fluidity between the screens is the currency. I wonder if anyone is going to crack that. I want to crack that.

Mr. Crupi: The problem is there are not so many progressive agencies. Starcom and SMG, those guys are looking at everything beyond just straight up Nielsen impressions. But these are the same guys that have been using the same data for 70 years and everyone knows it's kind of a shot in the dark, but it is what it is. Agencies are just as much a part of the bigger problem. You still have to kick stuff down the hall to get digital attached. To tell those guys to start thinking outside the box seems like it's going to be hard.

Mr. Redniss: You are taking about the generational tide. And the tide is coming up and you've got this whole generation…who have done it a certain way for such a long time. Do they want to go through and learn the whole new craft and understanding? No way, they do not want to do that. I think we are at flux right now; you've got probably 10 years for that change to happen. But there are progressive agencies: Starcom, Horizon, you've got MediaStorm; you've got even more progressive agencies like Deep FocusMRY360i. Are those are the next-generation major media houses? Probably, because they are looking at all sources of engagement --- everything from digital-placed banners in billboards with mobile information and social location-based data. There are very few people who see the whole picture right now and understand where this is all going to go, but they'll get there. The real question is what currency they are going to trade on. I don't think anybody knows.

Ms. Poggi: How much do we need to pay attention now to measuring sentiment and conversation around a brand or program versus a pure number of how many likes or retweets?

Mr. Redniss: I think that's really powerful, especially when you are talking about the art form of storytelling. People aren't creating art to drive metrics. Quite honestly, when you are talking to all the different showrunners, they aren't saying, 'We are going pop a big number in the demo and we are going to drive X million views on YouTube.' No, they want to tell a great story. So when you can start figuring out how you attach yourself to the audience who cares, like emotionally cares about the story or what this person has to say, that's when you can start figuring out how you pool these people together and then match brands to tell a story correctly versus just going straight for [what] does [this do for] the number of the demo -- we are going to advertise against it whether it matches up the brand pillars or not. It just doesn't make sense.

Ms. Poggi: How does some of this play out in the upfronts?

Mr. Redniss: I think you are going to hear from a lot of networks this year about their new cross-platform targeting capabilities and monetization capabilities. NBC Universal announcing NBCU Synch is a smart play, they are basically again aligning their [data management platform] with their social ability to buy and target brand content. Last year you heard from Viacom with social Ecograph. I think you are going to see some more of that and I think it is really important for the entire industry to understand what it means. I think you are going to see a lot of announcements with major media companies rallying around the new celebrity, finding new talent in new areas and basically saying it's about finding talent that has installed or inherent user base already. So you will be seeing cross-over with a lot of social stars into the television world. It's going to go back to a couple of brands announcing big deals like 'Hey, we are going super deep with X,' or media companies co-funding or co-writing the deal together. Like Honda and "Community." Honda is literally underwriting most of the cost to do that show to pick up the season. I think you are going to see a couple of more of those deals.

Mr. Crupi: It's funny because we were talking about progressive agencies and obviously these are great ideas. But this really goes back to the birth of TV. That's how TV was sold. One sponsor, boom that was it. But it also brings up the question that all of this seems to be leading up to the end of demographics.

Mr. Redniss: It is going to move to psychographics -- understanding how people are engaging with content and what else they do. I think is going to be one of the most powerful things and that's why companies like 4C who can actually help provide those insights and show them in a way that's actionable to the brands and to the media companies is really powerful. I think you will see a couple of companies talking about how they are doing that across the DMP and across ad platforms, but are they really? I am not sure yet. I think you will hear some cool stories.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Thanks, Nielsen, for That Twitter Study — but It’s Time We “Total It up” with You

The media world is abuzz about the latest Nielsen Study which suggests that “Twitter TV activity can…tell us just how engaged the general viewing population is with the programming it watches.”  Through mapping brain activity alongside Twitter TV activity, Nielsen goes even further to state that this activity also “stands as a bellwether for general audience engagement.”  This is a valuable finding, one that we think is extremely fascinating, but not for the exact reasons that Nielsen is trumpeting.

At its core, the findings don’t seem especially surprising – when people are engaged with a TV program (and we’ve got the brain waves to prove it), there’s a better chance they’ll do something about it, like tweet.  And if people are engaged with TV programs, there’s a better chance they might actually look at and be inspired to act on or remember some of the ads they might have seen. Great news for networks and advertisers!  And – theoretically – great news for Nielsen who has bet the “social TV” ranch on Twitter with their “exclusive multi-year agreement” from 2012.

We would like to take a moment here to highlight the misconception that “social TV” and “twitter activity” are interchangeable (look no further than this study’s headline on Nielsen’s website – “Social TV: A Bellwether for TV Audience Engagement”).  This is a minor nuance but one with a major impact for the industry, and here’s why:

Twitter is a critically important platform for the TV industry, providing some of the most enriched data sets available, especially on a minute-by-minute basis, which is the traditional framework for linear advertising stories. They are arguably the kings of live television engagement and have masterfully created a platform that captures the real-time audience engagement and creates a town square of fun and excitement. Almost daily, we are leveraging insights from Twitter’s data and business strategies in our discussions with and recommendations to all of our clients — and not just our television network clients.

That said, many platforms make up the “social TV” ecosystem and the reason why this study is important has very little to do with Twitter alone, rather, it highlights the notion that actions taken on digital platforms can be representative of how engaged viewers are with specific programs. Think of it as an indication of how much attention the story, characters or story world content are capturing from the passive and participating audiences. In this case, Nielsen looked at tweets as a form of engagement (that is what they use for their Nielsen Twitter Television Ratings – NTTR).

But, imagine this; imagine if we “totaled it all up” (citing Nielsen’s recently launched Total it Upcampaign):

We take Nielsen’s headline-worthy finding and apply it across several of the largest digital and social platforms in the world measuring the types of engagements that nearly everyone does.  We’re talking about Facebook. And Instagram. And Tumblr. And Snapchat. And, if you think about it, imagine the signals you get when you consider engagement on YouTube and search engine queries, as well.  When you look across fan engagement across all these platforms, you take off the table the traditional criticism about NTTR while running with this study’s novel finding.

Well, the entire industry has been moving ahead with this philosophy for quite some time, making strides to measure both the quantitative data across all platforms as well as the qualitative insights that go along with said data. Not only are agencies, creators and research teams craving deep analytics and measurement across all screens and touch-points, they want to find meaning behind those metrics too. We’ve highlighted many of the companies that are fighting the good fight here in our previous posts.

Great companies like Listen First Media built this very philosophy as the foundation of their (Digital Audience Ratings) DAR metric, a cross-platform review of fan engagement across the entire television landscape, including Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+, YouTube, and Wikipedia (as a proxy for organic search activity). And they’re not limited to rating program engagement based solely on show presentation on traditional television. 

This notion makes the recent news of Facebook opening up their audience data to provide deeper and richer marketer insights so much more powerful.

Arguably five times times more activity, engagement and social expression is being shared on Facebook, but yet it’s not being counted toward the NTTR definition of “social TV.”

But, let’s give some credit where credit is due: Nielsen has been making strides in this area. They have a strategic relationship with our good friends (*and a BRaVe investment) over at Mashwork, who came to market with the first productized qualitative social analytics tools in the market called *Canvs. This is by far one of the best platforms we’ve seen that provides real insight to that “meaning behind the metrics.”

When you look at the Neuro study, along with some of their other strategic moves and now their TV industry “call to arms” to literally pull a line from Jerry Maguire and “Help them help you!”

That’s why we are really excited by this Nielsen study — it corroborates one of the key foundations of our philosophy, which is taking a “not an either/or approach, but ALL” and Nielsen is now asking for help in figuring it all out.

So, we’re going to take you on your word here Nielsen and WE WANT TO HELP YOU HELP THE INDUSTRY. As you make a move to “Total it Up” across all screens, let’s not overlook how and where audiences indicate and share attention. It’s eyeballs being shared on the video screens as well as fingers swiping and tapping in social streams, apps and digital properties. 

We may all agree with the Buggles that ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ but the future of video may be driven by the Social Star. So let’s make an effort here to “Total it Up” properly and capture attention and engagement across all digital and social touch points and get a true view into what the future of attention really means. We’re here, ready and waiting…call us at 867-5309…but please make sure that if you want the entire industries help in “getting it right” that you’re ready to…

SHOW US THE MONEY!

Guess what Big Media pitched the ad guys

If you missed this year's upfront presentations—the annual events where linear TV networks trot out their upcoming programming for potential advertisers—here are some key takeaways from the events that wrapped up this week.

The upfront market will be slightly down

This year, several sources say they expect the upfront broadcast and cable ad inventory buying markets—which lasts between when the network presentations occur through about July 4—to be about 1 percent to 2 percent lower than last year. 

Despite the downturn, it's slightly good news. Last season, media analytics firm Media Dynamics had pegged the ad buyer commitment to the 2014-15 season at $18.1 billion, a 6 percent to 7 percent decline from the previous season. 

Read MoreTiVo working on a 'legal' version of Aereo

Another positive? Jesse Redness, co-founder of media strategy firm Brave Ventures, believes that many advertisers may be saving their money for the scatter market, which is the time after July 4 when remnant ad inventory is sold. Because several networks unveiled new cross-screen targeting initiatives using big data, he said many media buyers may be waiting to see how well these programs work before committing dollars. 

Networks are harnessing the power of big data

Speaking of big data, many networks reaffirmed their commitment to evolving to fit the digital space by offering new advertising options that allow brands to target consumers on different devices using the data that they and their partners glean through various platforms. Marketers who were concerned that too many eyeballs were shifting away from watching live linear broadcast programming can now fine-tune their buys to target the right mix of a network's consumers, no matter on what screen they are watching. 

For example, Turner Broadcasting's Turner Data Cloud is the media company's new data management platform that will let marketers launch their digital and linear campaigns across the entire family of Turner networks through direct or technology-led programmatic means. 

Meanwhile, NBC Universal touted its partnership with Comcast, saying it would allow advertisers to access information on consumers derived through the cable provider's set-top boxes. The data will help supplement NBCU's audience targeting platform, a program announced in January 2015 that leverages first and third-party data to help brands reach the demographics they desire on the media conglomerate's properties. NBCUniversal is the parent of CNBC. 

ESPN also announced that it would be working with Cablevision to use the cable company's census-level audience insights for further understanding into consumer behavior to inform more accurate cross-screen targeting. 

Upfronts are making way for newfronts

This year's upfronts, which are notoriously lavish presentations and parties that ostentatiously show off a network's worth, were slightly toned down from previous years. 

While the main networks still rented out landmark theaters in New York with all the regalia, many of the cable networks preferred to have private one-on-one meetings with their clients, including AMC and SyFy or held a combined presentation with the rest of a media company's properties such as A&E Networks and Turner Broadcasting. Several sources remarked that the events that took place seemed less flashy than the opulence of previous years, maybe a sign that last year's 2014-15 market didn't perform as well as expected. 

Read MoreCablevision to drop $1 bid for NY Daily News: Source

On the flip side, the so-called digital content newfronts presentations—the digital video industry's response to the upfronts, where online video networks and producers highlight their upcoming programming and ad offerings—were more in demand than last year, with 35 companies presenting. Although many participants (which included Google's YouTube, BuzzFeed, Vice Media and Disney-owned Maker Studios booked smaller venues, lines wrapping around the establishments suggested that they would have been able to fill just as much space as the main broadcast networks. In fact, the line rejected from BuzzFeed's presentation due to space stretched about one city avenue block. 

Networks are forsaking millennials

Perhaps a sign that networks are paying close attention to the studies that say millennials (19- to 34-year-olds, per Pew Research Group) are not watching TV—a January 2015 Forrester Research report said only 40 percent of U.S. millennials watch live TV each month—many networks seemed to skew older with their 2015-16 programming. 

Fox unveiled two comedies starring Rob Lowe and John Stamos, the latter of which plays a grandfather, mind you. NBC highlighted "Crowded," a comedy about empty-nesters starring Patrick Warburton and Carrie Preston. Even ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee slightly joked that he didn't understand millennial tastes when he said its twisted crime drama "Wicked City" was its highest-testing pilot with the millennial demographic. 

"What's wrong with those guys?" he commented at the ABC upfront presentation. 

Need more evidence? NBC treated its attendees to a performance by Dolly Parton, Fox let attendees go home to a song-and-dance number from its upcoming "Grease" live musical special and ABC tapped Montell Jordan to sing "This Is How We Do It," which was a hit in 1995. 

Never mind, networks aren't forsaking millennials

Admittedly, every network mentioned at least one millennial-leaning show, although sometimes it wasn't exactly clear why this programming was going to appeal to the young adult group, especially since some of it felt very dated. Fox's "Minority Report," for example, is based on a movie that came out in 2002. 

Not everyone was willing to write millennials off. CBS led with a mostly millennial-targeted slate, reaffirming their commitment to the age group with shows including its new late night programming with Stephen Colbert and its superhero drama "Supergirl." It also announced it was killing off CSI this year, while reminding media buyers it was just slightly behind NBC when reaching adults in the 18-to-49 demographic last season. 

Read MoreMany options may be the best option for Bill Simmons

CW hammered, in the fact that they were all about the millennials, with more superhero programming including DC's "Legends of Tomorrow," musical comedy "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and the Vampire Diaries spinoff "The Originals." 

If investors are really looking for networks that are targeting this coveted demographic, every single newfront presenter mentioned how much their content was reaching millennials at least 30 times. Remember those millennials who were watching only 40 percent of their linear TV live according to the Forrester Research study? Turns out 55 percent of them are still watching four or more hours of TV on a TV screen, and 34 percent are watching four or more hours of TV online. The message: Don't write off television and video programming just yet.

Can Data Help Maker Studios Guarantee a Hit for The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman? Nerd Court is now in session

In a heated exchange before a judge, YouTuber Commander Holly (real name: Holly Conrad) faces off against actress Tina Huang. The issue at hand is one that has divided many a Trekkie: William Riker, yay or nay?

Welcome to Nerd Court, where arguments that one might normally witness at a comic book store instead are heard in a "court of law," à la The People's Court or Judge Judy. (Other raging debates include Star Wars vs. Star Trek, and which film series features better magic, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.)

The six-episode Web series, which premiered March 4, is a passion project of Maker Labs, a division of Disney-owned multichannel network Maker Studios, and Skybound Entertainment, the media company owned by Robert Kirkman, executive producer of AMC's hit zombie thriller The Walking Dead and creator of the comic book series on which the show is based. "It's a whole tongue-in-cheek show, but it's a lot of fun," says Kirkman.

The combination of Kirkman, the creative force behind one of television's top series, and Maker Studios—which, with more than 11 billion monthly views, is the largest content distributor on YouTube—pretty much ensures Nerd Court will attract a degree of viewership. And yet neither side wants to leave that to chance. The Maker Labs model will give Skybound, on whose YouTube channel the show runs, an expansive layer of data based on social media insights to inform its creative decisions. Maker believes that formula will enable Kirkman's company to experiment with digital media while doing the formerly impossible: guaranteeing a hit.

"If you know that your audience likes this kind of content, why the hell do I want to make 19 shows that may be successful?" says Michael Kassan, CEO of the strategic advisory firm MediaLink, which has helped broker several Maker Studios deals. "I want to make the one that people will watch."

Maker Studios first announced the creation of Maker Labs last May at its Digital Content NewFronts presentation in New York. It underscored the central challenges content producers and advertisers in the digital space face: finding relevant content for specific audiences and, especially in the case of brands, being able to prove with hard stats that programming resonates. Now, Maker Labs is rewriting the script for producing hits by letting its partners use its creative team, digital experience and, most importantly, the real-time feedback on audience behavior it gathers through digital analysis.

Maker Labs also advises on distribution strategy, production, management, optimization and marketing, all based on online data. Talent labs (which in the future will include media partners and publishers) focus more on working with creators to help bring series to life, while brand labs can be activated using Maker's roster of 55,000 creators. Besides Skybound, others working with Maker include James Franco and Vince Jolivette's Rabbit Bandini Productions, professional skateboarder Nyjah Huston, singer will.i.am and PepsiCo.

"Think of it as taking the best of what digital does—which is really distributing content at scale and delivering real-time data and insights—and merging that with what traditional media does, which is storytelling," explains Maker Studios chief content officer Erin McPherson. "With both of those combined, we're able to produce content that is really responsive to audience demand."

McPherson notes that Maker Labs was born out of inefficiencies in the market, considering the bulk of content available on so many devices. In her previous position as head of video at Yahoo, she realized that unless programming was supported by serious marketing, it would never be discovered. While Yahoo had the benefit of its front page to seed materials, she points out, consumers today—especially millennials—are less likely to turn to such portals to find what to watch.

Even with promotional budgets, it remains difficult to capture the attention of today's fragmented audience—which is why having social media stats built into one's content can help ensure a receptive audience. "The Internet is moving to a destinationless Web," she says. "It's really about finding content on your social platform through search and through your subscribed channels on YouTube. Social is really the connective tissue."

Maker Labs may be producing more than new forms of storytelling. Its methodology could even open doors for traditional TV programmers to craft new series based on social media insights as opposed to gut instincts and test screenings. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this year the Big Five broadcast networks will order more than 80 projects to pilot, only a fraction of which will actually make it to series. "If the networks had this data, they would use all the tools in the package to get the right show on the air," says Kassan. "It would be absolutely foolish for someone not to."

In fact, the networks, as well as streaming sites, have already started factoring social media insights into their programming strategies. Netflix famously greenlit House of Cards based on its users' affinity for star Kevin Spacey, producer and director David Fincher (whose fans are more likely to watch his content to completion), and the British version of the series. 

Back when Brave Ventures co-founder Jesse Redniss was head of digital at NBCUniversal's USA Network, the network noticed that a line of dialogue from its series Suits—"You just got Litt up!" (referring to a character in the show)—was trending online. So the net created a marketing campaign and produced merchandise around the hashtag #LittUp, and worked with the show's creative team to get the phrase incorporated into more episodes.

Redniss expects Hollywood to embrace the practice even more. "We are moving into an era between the balance of data science and the actual art form of storytelling," he says. "Data can be a fail-safe and a foolproof way for smart creators and marketers to help inform how they can move forward." 

For James Franco, working with the folks at Maker Labs was a no-brainer. His company, Rabbit Bandini, makes many different types of videos, and he found Maker receptive to the variety of projects he wanted to pursue.

"It was interstellar in the support they would provide to inchoate projects," Franco says. "I got so sick of having to pitch ideas to executives before getting to make anything. Maker is a place where we can just try things."

Franco's partner Jolivette adds that getting information right away on content that doesn't resonate lets them make changes to a series immediately, to better appeal to a target audience. "With regular TV, you can't do that," Jolivette says. "You have to go through a yearlong development process. Hopefully you get a pilot and hopefully you get a series; hopefully you get to do something that is really meaningful. For us, this is an opportunity to get feedback and introduce us to a different audience we wouldn't have on television."

The process of working with Maker Labs is a simple one. Partners get reports that take a deep dive into online behavior concerning a star, a product or a brand. For example, in the first report prepared for Rabbit Bandini, Franco and Jolivette's team was alerted to the fact that Franco's collaborations with celebrities including Dave Franco (his brother), Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj and Seth Rogen led to a spike in online conversation, and that Twitter is where most chatter about the star takes place. (See the infographic below for more details.)

Grading James Franco

Maker Labs' first report for the star's production company offers a glimpse into his social media clout.

Based on its research, Maker was able to offer the creators suggestions—ranging from the potential for Franco doing videos for Vine to his relying less on auto-generated posts from Instagram for his Twitter account, instead creating new tweets or reposting Instagram content natively. Rabbit Bandini also met with Maker's creative team to brainstorm ideas. According to Jolivette, those discussions are working toward a short-form episodic series—as opposed to Franco's previous comedic parodies—with a launch sometime this year. Once the content is released, Maker will be able to glean more insights to aid Rabbit Bandini in better tailoring content for its target consumers.

"You have the opportunity to incubate an idea and let it naturally grow," Jolivette says. "With all the money spent in network television, they cancel it right away and don't give it an opportunity to find an audience. We're able to find the right audience and develop the content in a way that is natural to the show."

Meanwhile, Kirkman's Maker conversations and his own creative preferences led to Skybound pursuing a more nerd-centric slate. Kirkman had previously gone through the process with Maker on a show called Superfight, based on a Skybound card game of the same name. The writer says he really appreciated the speed with which it went to series.

Working with digital platforms also lets Skybound cut out most of the middlemen, Kirkman explains. "It's like taking my experience with comics, where there are few stumbling blocks along the way, and advancing that to the television space," he says. "I think Maker is a very apt title because we are making stuff very quickly."

To date, Superfight has achieved 110,000 total views, with its top episode garnering 33,000. By comparison, the Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead attracted 17.3 million viewers. Kirkman understands well that all the data insights in the world may never replicate on a digital platform the kind of television success he has enjoyed. Then again, the money involved in creating an hourlong television drama and a game show based on a niche game are a completely different exercise altogether.

"If you want to do some kind of massive, big-budget show like The Walking Dead, at this point in history you go to television to produce that kind of content," Kirkman admits. "I think that game shows and news outlets are translating to digital media a lot quicker because it's easier to produce. I don't think traditional media is a dinosaur the world doesn't need anymore. There's still a lot to be done there. "

Then there is the issue of data ruling over creative. MediaLink's Kassan fears that relying too much on numbers could stifle creativity and make programming that's too stiff—a death knell for branded content.

Barry Lowenthal, president of media agency The Media Kitchen, notes that factors beyond an audience profile—the chemistry of the actors, the costumes and so on—can also factor into a show's success. But he adds that while data may not guarantee a hit, "it might prevent a flop."

Skybound partner David Alpert says that while Maker's insights are valuable, the company doesn't change course based on that information. "We sort of go through our library of creators and find things that fit into their metrics, as opposed to reverse engineering based off of what they say would work," he explains. "From our perspective, the important thing is the creator."

Kirkman adds that when it comes to creating stories and characters, no amount of data will ever change his mind.

And while he admits he would love to have the No. 1 digital series and television series at the same time, he's not that hung up on the idea. "The beauty of digital media," he notes, "is that if you have the No. 1 show, you have it for about eight minutes."   

The Tinder-Meets-Social of Local Search Raises $2 Million in Seed Funding

The mobile startup Didit wants to make finding that perfect restaurant or fantasy vacation spot a bit more like online dating and less like online shopping.

The company, founded by digital media veteran David Paschkes, has raised $2 million in seed funding from some prominent names in digital media. They include Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder of the consulting firm Brave Ventures; Wenda Harris Millard, president and chief operating officer of MediaLink; and Fred Santarpia, executive vice president and chief digital officer at Conde Nast.

Didit aims to help people find places to visit or activities they’d like to try by tapping into people’s real life social networks. It can find your friends that either have similar tastes and make recommendations, or it can help you make plans with a group of friends.

Plus, Didit also promises to help people collect and save ideas for future activities via the app. Say a user reads a restaurant review or combs through a list like “Top Places to Travel in Your 30s” but isn’t necessarily in a let’s-book-this-now mode. That information can be saved in the app for reference later.

“This is about getting information from people that matter to you, and making it actionable,” said Mr. Paschkes, who is headed to the Cannes advertising festival next week to showcase the social app.

Didit, which will roll out in open beta this fall, resembles Tinder or Flipboard in that people can swipe through pictures of potential places they’d like to go. The thinking, according to Mr. Paschkes–who has logged stints at companies ranging from Vevo to Yahoo–is to help people avoid having to comb through Web searches overwhelmed with listings of bars, restaurants or travel destinations that have been reviewed online almost entirely by strangers.

It was that social curation factor that stood out to Ms. Millard. “Our digital lives can be messy,” she said. “I’m constantly saying, ‘where did I put that link?’ This helps you organize things in one place, and the ideas are from people I know. So many other reviews don’t mean anything to me.”

Didit will explore several potential revenue sources, said Mr. Paschkes. Advertisers will be able to post sponsored content in the app. The company also may sell data it collects to marketers at some point.

Mr. Paschkes said he is exploring partnerships with companies that help people book restaurant reservations and travel. He’s also talking to several publishers, including Time. Inc., about distributing content via Didit. A Time Inc. representative confirmed the two companies are in discussions but no deal is imminent.

For example, a travel magazine might post lists of places to visit during the summer, and if people book a trip via the app, Didit will share revenue with that partner.

Conde Nast hasn’t signed on yet, but Mr. Santarpia said that what he liked about Didit’s premise is that it is not focused on the day-to-day, like many mobile listings apps. “This is not about where to meet for coffee,” he said. “It’s aspirational. They want you to dream big.”