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Ready to Deal: NBCU Maven Revels in Sport of Blurb Sales

Linda Yaccarino’s under pressure to bring in the bucks for Peacock’s broadcast and cable networks

“The Real Gilligan’s Island” is not likely to go down in TV history. Linda Yaccarino sold the show like it would.

The 2004 reality series marked an early stab at original programming by TBS, mixing CBS’ “Survivor” and the well-worn sitcom about castaways striving to survive after an ill-fated three-hour boat tour. Yaccarino, then exec veep of ad sales for Turner’s entertainment cablers, positioned the show as being “at the forefront” of allowing product placement in reality programming on cable, she recalled. Ford, Lowe’s and Pfizer took the island journey.

Yaccarino, now prexy of ad sales for NBCUniversal, knows how to hone in on advertiser interests, said Chris Eames, an ESPN ad sales exec who worked with her on the “Gilligan” effort, which, he added, allows her to extract as much value as she can in negotiations.

Now those skills face their greatest test. Yaccarino is about to enter her first upfront — the time when TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory — as the leader of advertising sales for broadcast and cable nets at NBCUniversal. The all-encompassing breadth of her role is unique among the major showbiz congloms. And her success this upfront is critical to NBCU parent Comcast, which needs her to move approximately $9 billion worth of ad inventory to drive growth. A happy outcome is not guaranteed: She will have to contend not only with programming issues at NBC, but rivals such as Disney and News Corp. who would love to divert ad dollars that might come her way. Adding to the pressure, her boss, NBCU chief exec Steve Burke, has told Wall Street in recent months that he believes NBCU’s outlets should be commanding higher CPMs.

Yaccarino won’t do it with small steps. Over her career, she has developed a reputation as a fierce negotiator who doesn’t shrink from seeking the highest possible prices — so long as she has a rationale underscoring why her efforts deserve the cash. Last year, during her first upfront overseeing sales for NBCU’s cable nets (before she was upped to her current perch in September), Yaccarino sought price hikes comparable to what CBS and Fox demanded. Some senior buyers at the time said they balked.

“She is driven for success, and she’s incredibly aggressive,” said Liz Janneman, executive veep of advertising sales at cabler Ovation, who supervised Yaccarino for a time at Turner. “She’s at a place now where the buck stops with her, and that is what she has strived for. She is in her element.”

Maybe the moxie comes from time spent on the road hawking syndicated programming 40 weeks a year, a job she held earlier in her career. Perhaps it’s something she learned at Turner, where the name of the game was convincing buyers to spend more on cable, once seen as decidedly secondary to a buy on CBS, NBC and ABC.

At the Time Warner unit, Yaccarino touted the company’s original programs as “broadcast replacement” — and asked for big price hikes. She orchestrated a months-long effort to comb through hours of acquired programs like “Seinfeld” and tag specific scenes relevant to particular sponsors. (As part of the process, the company found old TV-show product placements and asked the original sponsors if they’d like to buy ads next
to them.) When TBS launched Conan O’Brien’s talkshow, Yaccarino pushed advertisers to pay the same prices they were paying for “Letterman” or “Leno” for a package of “Conan” and the now-defunct “Lopez Tonight.” When “Conan” had ratings issues, she didn’t miss a beat — she told advertisers to focus on the red-haired comic’s burgeoning digital presence.

“She has a real joy for the negotiation,” said Mark Lazarus, chair of NBC Sports Group and a former president of Turner’s entertainment-programming assets.

No matter how she pitches, Yaccarino said, it’s up to advertisers to scan the economy and the competitive landscape and decide how much to pay.

“The market really determines your price,” she said.

Advertisers can’t dismiss her. With TV viewership splintering around dozens of TV nets, Web-video sites and mobile options, gaining what marketers call “scale” — a simple way to reach millions of consumers with a single buy — is more elusive. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and “The Voice” remain two of TV’s most-watched programs, and cable outlets such as USA and Bravo are top tier.

(Cable Heat: NBCUniversal’s ad pitch emphasizes the range of Peacock’s offerings, such as Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” hosted by Andy Cohen, with guest Chelsea Handler.)

Her team, assembled over the past year, will push the idea of buying ad packages across NBCU. Need to advertise in latenight? Buy Chelsea Handler on E! and Andy Cohen on Bravo in addition to Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon on NBC. And while “The Voice” gets tons of attention, Yaccarino and team are likely to throw as big a spotlight on reruns of “Modern Family,” set to debut on USA.

The idea is that advertisers need a big company to build reach for them at a time when massive TV audiences have become harder to find.

“As fragmentation continues, it makes all the sense in the world to see if we can come together as a portfolio and understand the benefits we could offer our customers,” she said.

Advertisers once grumbled about NBCU cable execs dreading the prospect of holding hands with colleagues selling the company’s diminished broadcast outlet. “I am happy to report we heard them loud and clear,” Yaccarino said, and now her ad-sales operatives stand ready to work across media types. Now Jim Hoffman, the head of broadcast primetime sales, might work digital pacts, Yaccarino said, and NBCU lured Alison Tarrant, an ad exec who gained notice for crafting tailor-made commercials for sponsors at CW, to work on a larger scale at NBCU’s cable networks.

Ad buyers suggest the ad packages could quietly raise prices for NBC primetime and lesser cable lights, like Chiller or Cloo, and wonder if the move could send dollars to rivals. “Of course they would say that,” said Yaccarino, who remains open to selling ads on NBCU’s nets separately. “That’s their job.” Hers, of course, is to sell.

Big 4 Ad Sales: Women Lead the Charge

The world of TV ad sales has long been viewed as one dominated by men.

These days, however, ad sales at the Big Four broadcast networks are largely supervised by women.

In addition to Linda Yaccarino at NBCU, Jo Ann Ross has long held forth for CBS, trying to navigate between the demands of advertisers as well as her boss, CBS chief Leslie Moonves. Geri Wang has supervised ABC’s efforts since 2010 (where Debbie Richman runs primetime sales).

Fox’s head of broadcast and sports sales is Toby Byrne, but News Corp. veteran Jean Rossi is deeply involved with Fox shows like “American Idol” and “X Factor” as well as ad packages sold across News Corp. units.

Upfront Schedule

Here’s a rundown of the major programming presentations set for May 13-16:

MONDAY

NBC
11 a.m. – Radio City Music Hall
Fox
4 p.m. – Beacon Theater

TUESDAY

ESPN
9 a.m.- Best Buy Theater
Univision
11 a.m. – New Amsterdam Theater
ABC
4 p.m. – Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall
Telemundo
6:30 p.m. – Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall

WEDNESDAY

Turner
10 a.m. – HammersteinBallroom
Fox Hispanic Media
Noon – Alice Tully Hall
CBS
4 p.m. – Carnegie Hall
Adult Swim
9 p.m. – Roseland Ballroom

THURSDAY

CW
11 a.m. – City Center
USA
4 p.m. – Pier 36

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