CBS’ Jo Ann Ross Paces the Sales Race Among the Big Four Networks

Ethan Hill

Meet the face of the Eye as the heat behind “upfront sales” talks starts to rise.

Of all the people currently supervising ad sales at the broadcast networks, Jo Ann Ross has the longest tenure in the job, which has helped her build longstanding relationships with Madison Avenue.

She will need to rely on those strong ties when the upfront market starts in earnest. CBS is the nation’s most-watched network, but NBCUniversal will likely come on strong this year by playing up its current resurgence among viewers between 18 and 49. Ad buyers – as is their wont – are expressing reluctance to give in to substantial price hikes. And then there are all those cable competitors and digital rivals that would like to take a slice of whatever monies might flow to broadcast TV in general or CBS in particular.

In 2013, a wily Ross stole momentum from rivals by agreeing to average rate increases of 7.5% in the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers, a bedrock metric in upfront haggling. Ad buyers had expected CBS to hold out for larger price hikes. Ross’ maneuvering appeared to catch NBC and ABC by surprise; those two networks continued to hold out for bigger numbers while CBS stole volume.

Unsurprisingly, Ross would not tip her hand regarding possible upfront negotiating strategies, but she did talk about CBS’ new slate of Thursday-night football and her sense of how the ad market is shaping up. Her comments, lightly edited, follow below:

What do you anticipate from various ad categories?

We take a very macro look at a lot of different categories, first based on information that is historical and then based on information that we’ve been able to glean from client meetings and from press, scatter buying… We’ve had meetings with our auto clients. Some of them are very, very healthy and robust and others are similar to this year. The indicators are, I believe, very good there… Packaged goods, I think it’s a little bit too early. In retail, there are some fits and starts… I would say, look, even if they’ve had a tough year, they need to have a strong voice in the fourth quarter, which is where they make the largest part of their profits for the year. I would say retail will be similar to last year, if not slightly up. Some of the technology advertising has just been saturated, and I’m not sure where that’s going to go… We are a 25-to-54 network, so we have a lot of the pharmaceutical business. That is one of our bread-and-butter categories. That category is, based on my early reports, still very, very engaged with TV… Financial, banking, credit cards, whatever you want to call it — if you watch our air, we have done very well with that category in the fourth and first quarters and it remains to be seen where those buyers are going.

How will CBS’ Thursday night football slate affect the market? Are you worried some advertisers seeking primetime scripted entertainment might go elsewhere?

Live sports is entertainment, in our view. Right now we are talking to some of the incumbents (advertisers already sponsoring the games) that were on NFL Network. It is being very well received by the advertising community and by all of our clients, whether they are primetime clients or sports clients or a mix… It’s a huge win for us. We think that it’s a great primetime platform. It gives us the opportunity to move some of our comedies around, some of our dramas around on Thursday and hopefully create another night as a stronghold… I don’t think you want to walk into the CMO and say, “We are staying away from Thursday night football.” People are wondering about entertainment gross ratings points versus sports gross ratings points, or wondering about supply, and we say over and over again, live sports is entertainment. And if you look at the competition, what NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’”has been doing (in the ratings) against women, we would expect to do just as well if not better… If you are buying adults or if you are buying women, you are going to want to buy this night on CBS.

Is it your expectation that you will take some ad dollars from NFL broadcasts on rival networks?

That would be our hope.

The rise of these “newfront” presentations in recent years suggests there’s more clamor for all kinds of digital video. What does a traditional TV network do to fill that need?

Many buyers are saying, “This is going to be a video upfront, this is going to be a video upfront.” We think video starts with content on the television screen, and we do very well… We can sell (TV and digital) together. We can sell it separately. We are flexible depending on what the client wants to do. We know that for most clients, one size does not fit all.

Video-on-demand is growing more popular as a viewing option, but TV networks want to disable the fast-forwarding capabilities and plug in more ads. Do you think consumers will fully embrace this?

I think they’ve got it. They are used to seeing that. They know the fast forward is disabled per se… If someone is going to VOD, I think they know they are going to see the full commercial load… We finally are there with dynamic ad insertion (where advertisers can insert new commercials to be more relevant as the programs stream well after a particular episode debuts on TV). We expect that it will grow as people get more familiar with it, and agencies are able to sell it through to their clients in terms of changing their creative.

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