TV networks have some news for Madison Avenue: TV ads still cost money, even amid a pandemic.
The nation’s big media companies are trying to resist great pressure from advertisers and media buyers to take severe cutbacks in ad rates in early talks as part of the industry’s annual “upfront” advertising market, according to three executives familiar with discussions. Their pushback suggests owners of networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox are betting that a return of favorite TV elements like sports will draw new interest from sponsors and generate more demand for TV commercials – and potentially help them avoid capitulating to the most onerous demands.
There’s little question that the networks are facing headwinds. No prognosticator believes they will match the haul of ad commitments secured in last year’s market, when Variety estimates the nation’s five English-language networks won between $9.6 billion and $10.8 billion for primetime ad inventory – the fourth consecutive year that the networks saw increasing volume for their primetime schedules. One media executive says some clients have struck early deals in this year’s market that are “significantly” reduced in terms of the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers, a measure known as a “CPM” that is central to these annual discussions between U.S. TV networks and their advertisers. Some clients may be wondering whether they can get “rollbacks,” or CPM declines, owing to this year’s severe conditions. And many agencies have already indicated some troubled clients won’t be able to start negotiating for future ad buys until the fall.
Even so, there is some effort by the TV giants to resist bigger calls for reductions that would reverse gains the networks have made in recent years.
“Networks are going to seek similar increases to previous years until they see budgets being down significantly. Agencies should be looking for minimal increases, at worst,” says one media buyer, noting that the bulk of this year’s upfront efforts have yet to move. “The gap is too wide right now and there are still too many unknowns to get much traction in negotiations right now.”
The early maneuvering comes as the TV industry tries to move forward in an unprecedented moment. The coronavirus pandemic has forced most production to shut down, meaning the networks cannot start taping new episodes of comedies and dramas. And the contagion has scuttled all live sports, which generates some of TV’s biggest audiences and commands its top ad prices. The industry typically kicks off its upfront with glitzy presentations and costly parties in New York. This year, the networks have resorted to private, streaming-video outreach and videoconferences with clients.
Madison Avenue has less to give. Travel marketers, movie studios, automobile manufacturers and some restaurants have pulled back on advertising. National TV advertising in April fell 26.7%, to $2.7 billion, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. Meanwhile, several clients cancelled some portion of their third-quarter commitments to TV advertising, according to people familiar with the matter, but not as severely as they could have.
At issue, however, are the rates advertisers will pay. Thanks to an influx of new direct-to-consumer advertising from companies like Wayfair and Warby Parker, demand for TV advertising rose last year, prompting marketers to agree to pay some of the highest CPM increases in recent memory. . NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the CW pushed for hikes of 13% or more in 2019.
Chances are they will be hard-pressed to match that performance this year. Executives familiar with current talks said media buyers are pushing for “insurance,” or better-than-usual rates in exchange for buying up inventory when the business climate is hard to read.
The networks have good reason to delay finalizing new pacts. As plans for sports leagues to return become more tangible, advertisers could feel pressure to return quickly. Already, ESPN, WarnerMedia and Fox have seen tangible support for early-stage events like the NFL Draft; a celebrity golf match between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady; and the return of Nascar to a track without fans. The NHL has already articulated a plan to hold post-season play and the NBA is mulling a similar return. As demand increases, some clients who had planned to sit on the sidelines may have to get back on the field to match competitors who are returning to active advertising mode.
There are some new indicators of advertising’s return. Nielsen recently found that ad units in 101 of the nation’s top 132 media markets increased for the week ended April 27. The average rise in ad units shown was 5%, Nielsen said, but counts are up by double-digit percentages in markets like Lansing, Mich., Portland, Maine, Flint, Mich., Harlingen, Texas, Boise, Idaho, and Honolulu, Hawaii.
TV’s upfront market often wraps my mid-July, but the networks will have to play a waiting game this year. After all, if sports can return, the price for re-entry into TV advertising is likely to go up significantly in the fourth quarter.
The media companies will have to hope the money that might be gained there can offset the single-digit percentage increases they may have to grant to keep money flowing into the market in June and July. A small increase, after all, is better than none.