ESPN’s pitch to advertisers next week is that it already has the most of what they want.
The Walt Disney-controlled sports-media giant intends to remind advertisers next week at the start of TV’s annual “upfront” presentations that 98% of the viewing of content across all its distribution points is done live. “It is C-five minutes,” says Ed Erhardt, the company’s president of global sales and marketing, making a reference to the industry’s typical ways of measuring commercial viewing. Advertisers typically pay based on “C3” and “C7,” or views of commercials up to three days or a week after they originally air.
In doing so, ESPN is backing away from taking swipes at digital counterparts – as it has done in campaigns timed to the upfront market in 2017 and in 2016 – and instead putting the focus squarely on its own offerings. Last year in May, ESPN ran an ad campaign aimed at media buyers reminding them of its “brand safety” attributes at a moment when many were questioning the transparency of digital outlets. In May of 2016, ESPN launched an ad campaign telling people to watch ESPN live rather than streaming a movie, scanning a social-media site for friends’ birthdays or sharing pictures of food – seeding in viewers’ minds the notion that ESPN content is fresh, live and perishable, while new-media activities on smartphones and tablets can always be done later.
“Advertisers want to be part of the real-time conversation that goes on between consumers and content,” says Erhardt. “The more real-time that you are the more valuable your environment is.”
ESPN has reason to embrace digital media more fiercely this year. It goes to market with even more live sports and programming to sell, thanks to the launch of its ESPN+ service, which adds everything from a Kobe Bryant analysis program to live cricket broadcasts to an Major League Baseball game of the day on a $4.99-a-month broadband outlet. The company has also gotten advertisers to accept ratings that include live audiences on both linear TV and digital streaming. Many of them are also paying for out-of-home viewers who watch ESPN in hotels, at bars and elsewhere. Much of this takes place as ESPN has shed a chunk of its traditional subscriber base due to cord-cutting.
Those agreements, however, have helped ESPN notch ratings gains, a feat other networks have been hard-pressed to match.
In 2017, ESPN averaged 2,058,000 viewers overall in prime time across TV and streaming, an increase of 7% over the previous year. The company grew its audience among adults between 18 and 49, the demographic desired by advertisers. ESPN also saw its total day viewership rise 1%. Erhardt says the company has also made gains among female viewers. He cited NBA games as one fo the key drivers in recent audience increases.
ESPN will have a lot of new programming to sell during its Tuesday-morning presentation, including its recently-launched “Get Up” morning show and a re-calibrated 6 p.m. hour of “SportsCenter.” Jimmy Pitaro, who took the reins of ESPN earlier this year, will likely get his first taste of the spectacle.
“Real time is an opportunity, and it’s hard to find a place where you get real time on every screen,” says Erhardt.