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Advertisers Press For Fall Upfront Sales As TV’s $20 Billion Market Falls Apart

TV Ad Sales Upfronts
always with honor for Variety

Each year the nation’s largest TV networks try to sell billions of dollars in advertising time in the sales blitz known as the upfront. In 2020, the process is fast becoming an “un-front.”

Advertisers and their media agencies in a normal cycle negotiate a dizzying array of deals, schedules and audience guarantees with the big media conglomerates over a period of about two months, usually starting a few weeks after the end of the traditional broadcast TV season in late May. But the effects of the coronavirus pandemic – which has halted production on most scripted TV programs while scuttling live TV sports  – is sure to slow the pace of advertising deals this year. A significant number of them may get pushed into 2021.

Many advertisers are pressing for negotiations to take place in September and October, according to eight executives with knowledge of recent discussions, when the networks will have a better idea of their new programming lineups and marketers may have enough knowledge of how their businesses are faring to discuss the purchase of ad time in 2021. If that were to happen, it would undermine the flow of ad dollars to the networks in the fourth quarter, typically a period of robust spending around holiday shopping and NFL football games. Other sponsors are ready to buy ad time now, these executives say, in more typical fashion.

The TV networks will have to adapt to changing needs. “We will be ready whenever they want to come to us,” Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer at ViacomCBS, told Variety. “We are living through history right now. There is not one rule that’s going to apply. People who apply one rule to everything are going there at their own peril.”

Billions of dollars are at stake. In 2019, Madison Avenue committed nearly $21.9 billion to advertising on broadcast and cable networks in the upfront marketplace, according to consultant Media Dynamics, a jump of 5.4% over the previous year. Variety estimates the five English-language broadcast networks secured between $9.6 billion and $10.8 billion in 2019 commitments for primetime.  Now all that momentum is threatened: An April survey of 40 top marketing executives by UBS media analyst John Hodulik revealed nearly 90% of expect 2020-21 TV upfront volumes to stay flat with last year or decline.

Some ad hauls have already dissipated or moved beyond immediate reach. The cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball championship put an estimated $910 million in advertising into question for ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia. NBCUniversal had sold more than 90% of its ad inventory for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a haul valued in excess of $1.25 billion. Some of that money will no doubt move with the big event to 2021, but some may get canceled. And some of the advertising NBCU might have gotten in this year’s upfront process for the Olympics is now up for grabs.

The upfront has long hinged on all sales taking place concurrently. Big media buying companies roll up billions of dollars in ad spend and work with TV networks to allocate that money across the system. In 2020, the money will have to be gathered dollar by dollar, according to executives. “There will not be any ‘one size fits all’ upfront,” says one media buyer.

Simply put, not every advertiser can move in lockstep. The Video Advertising Bureau, a trade association, estimates about 4,000 entities buy national TV time. Travel advertisers and movie studios have largely gone dark, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. During the seven-day period ended April 12, the number of 30-second ads aired by travel marketers was down 99% from a year earlier, while movie studio spots were off 89%. Auto ads were down 48%. Others, however, have increased their ad weight: Ads for household products were up 69%, and commercials from insurance companies increased 47%

Keeping an open dialogue with all advertisers — no matter their situation — is paramount. “We’re here to support our clients and will move with optimal flexibility whenever they’re ready to, for this upfront season,” Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales, told Variety.

Major networks have a chance to stem some of the damage. There is a growing expectation that many advertisers will rely on so-called “scatter” advertising, or commercial inventory purchased much closer to air time that is typically sold at a higher cost, for their third- and fourth-quarter ad buys. Advertisers usually rely on “upfront” buys to avoid higher scatter prices.  If any major sports can start this summer or fall, there may be a rush to snap up ads, no matter the price. Executives also think that if some advertisers start getting active in the traditional upfront period, competitors on the sidelines may grow anxious and move to set up ad schedules. They also believe TV will continue to bring media’s biggest audiences to the screen. Indeed, if the nation’s bout with coronavirus is prolonged, consumers may choose to sheltering at home for several more months, even if restrictions are lifted.

And some advertisers may face a tough decision if they go dark on the networks. Several longstanding clients enjoy deals that keep their price increases at lower levels than the rest of the market. But if they pull a significant amount of volume off the air, they risk losing that benefit.

In a confusing time, new commercials are still being placed and new deals have been struck. According to the Video Advertising Bureau, 253 advertisers have launched campaigns tied to the pandemic , telling consumers how their products and services can help.

A handful of advertisers have moved to get involved with TV events that give them a bigger presence. Target has agreed to sponsor family movies aired on TV networks owned by Disney and NBCUniversal. State Farm and T-Mobile helped present a “Disney Family Sing-Along” special that aired last week on ABC. And ESPN’s much anticipated “Last Dance” documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls has advertising support from Facebook, State Farm and Hershey’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, all of which are helping to create extra content related to the ten-part series. NBCUniversal has moved to trim the number of commercials it runs in news programs, late-night shows and some reality programming, potentially opening its programming for more ambitious use of ad breaks.

For the last few weeks, TV networks and advertisers have been consumed with untangling a host of immediate problems, including the need to let some clients cancel or postpone a portion of their current ad orders, or replace ad schedules tied to delayed sports telecasts.Amid the chaos, however, there have been efforts to get both sides talking about the future.

Michael Kassan, a popular industry consultant, approached several TV ad sales chiefs and top media buyers in March, according to two people familiar with the matter, hoping to keep the market intact. More recently, several trade organizations, including the Association of National Advertisers, the 4As (formerly known as the American Association of Advertising Agencies) and VAB, have worked to spark discussions.

The board of directors at the VAB, which consists of the top ad sales executives at Fox, ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia, Discovery, Disney, Univision, AMC Networks and A+E Networks, among others, is expected to meet Wednesday. There are expectations that executives could start to devise guidelines for this year’s market.

“As you might imagine, it’s a full house,” said Sean Cunningham, CEO of VAB, of the meeting. “There’s a lot to talk about.”

The VAB declined to discuss the meeting’s agenda, but Cunningham said the ad market is top of mind.

Perhaps the biggest unanswerable question at the meeting for executives on both sides of the negotiating table: How much of the change that takes place this year will become permanent in years to come?

“We are in hyper-communication mode with an enormous amount of clients, and we are heading into an upfront market with a lot of variables,” Cunningham said.