In recent years, Yaccarino has railed against Nielsen and taken a public swipe at Facebook. She has urged advertisers to consider running fewer commercials on NBC and to work to make the ones that remain more ambitious and interesting. On Monday however, she will tackle a task that’s even more daunting: She will reach out to advertisers placed under severe financial pressure by a global pandemic and ask them to keep spending.
Yaccarino at this time of year would typically reach out to hundreds of advertisers, media buyers, agents, analysts, celebrities, journalists and executives from NBCU’s corporate parent, Comcast – all seated in a packed Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan and eager to hear about new programs from NBC, USA, MSNBC, E! and other networks the company owns. She would no doubt have nodded to the 2020 Olympics, now postponed, to which Comcast owns U.S. broadcast rights and for which NBCU had already secured orders for more than $1.25 billion in ads. She’d probably discuss Peacock, the new NBCU streaming-video service. And she’d preside over a glitzy event that would no doubt have included comedy from someone like Seth Meyers and a musical selection from a star musician like Christina Aguilera.
Instead, she and her team will on Monday hold a much more muted streaming-video presentation that will, for all intents and purposes, kick off a radically altered version of TV’s annual “upfront,” when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their commercial inventory for the next programming year. Comcast, Disney, ViacomCBS, WarnerMedia, Fox, Univision, Discovery and AMC Networks spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on such events, hoping they snare many more billions in advertising cash.
Instead of facing a massive crowd of influentials, Yaccarino and TV executives who hold similar roles are facing the unknown.
“I’m sure every network is ready to do business today,” says Bruce Lefkowitz, a former senior Fox ad-sales executive who is now president of Six Pack Media, an industry consultant. Thanks to the coronaivirus pandemic and its effects on the economy, however, “nobody knows what things are coming back.”
Spread of the contagion has thrown one of TV’s most dependable events into disarray. NBCUniversal will talk Monday to Madison Avenue about what it can do for advertisers and tout a new concept about having advertisers buy ads for TV, cable and streaming video all at once, with technology that can help place commercials more precisely depending on the type of consumer desired. It’s not the flashy display that people have come to expect from the TV industry’s annual quest to secure nearly $22 billion in primetime ad support. The central tenet of the upfront is to convince advertisers ranging from Apple to Zipcar to buy advertising time well in advance of the start of the fall and spring TV seasons, and do it for less than it might cost to buy that inventory closer to air date in what is known as ‘”scatter.”
People familiar with NBCU’s Monday presentation stress it isn’t meant to substitute for a glamorous upfront bazaar and that the company intends to hold something at a later date. But it will serve as a means of sparking conversations with buyers, many of whom have been hurt by the current pandemic. And NBCUniversal will be the first to test the waters in such public fashion. The company declined to make ad-sales executives available for comment in advance of the event.
It’s unclear what NBCU and other media companies will find. Stay-at-home orders issued across the nation have forced travel advertisers and movie studios to pull most of their TV advertising off the air, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Automotive marketers – some of TV’s biggest ad customers – ran more than 40% fewer TV spots during the week of April 20. Media buyers say that retailers have also pulled back, along with so-called “fast-casual” restaurants that can’t pivot easily to delivery or take out. Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales, says she is prepared do business with clients at times of their choosing – even if that is next year, when they are more comfortable spending big sums of cash.
Advertising has long served as a media-industry lifeline. This year, with the pandemic forcing the closure of the big media companies’ other lines of business – it will be even more critical. Disney and Comcast have shuttered their theme parks. ViacomCBS has had to push off the launches of movies from its Paramount movie studio. There are no live sports to televise. Discovery, which holds the rights to broadcast the 2020 Olympics in Europe, won’t be doing so this year.
What’s more, many of the media companies have new leaders, each of whom is under pressure to muster better performance as lines of revenue fade. Both Disney and Comcast have new CEOs at the helm, Bob Chapek and Jeff Shell. ViacomCBS merged two different companies under its aegis late last year and will be pressed to demonstrate how the CBS broadcast network can link to Viacom cable outlets like Comedy Central and MTV. AT&T just named a new CEO at WarnerMedia, former Hulu chief Jason Kilar.
But the CEOs have no control over global conditions. One of the challenges to selling TV ads this year is that the next few months of TV could be on hold. Yes, the NFL has announced a full fall schedule, but can the league really get all its teams in venues where they can play? And can pandemic conditions lift by mid-summer, giving the networks the buffer they need to get start producing new episodes of their series that could be on air by September or October?
In a normal year, media agencies would tally clients’ budgets by late May or early June, and negotiations for TV ad time would commence, with most done by mid-July. This year, all bets are off. “‘I think there will be a marketplace that happens in June and a marketplace that happens in October and November,” says one media buyer. ‘Most years, 80% to 90% gets done in June. This year, that’s probably going to move to 50% in June and 50% toward December.” A good chunk of ad cash may not be available to the TV networks until 2021.
Even the media companies themselves are bracing for a tougher-than-usual process. “We expect it to be later and longer than normal, but we’re ready whenever our clients are, and deals will get done,” says ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish, speaking to investors this week. “We believe there will be an improvement in advertising in the third and fourth quarters, assuming businesses begin to reopen at scale.”
Early negotiations for ad time have already commenced, according to buyers and sales executives, and the networks are coming under pressure. Two buying executives suggest a move is already afoot to extract pricing concessions from the networks in exchange for making ad commitments now, when the U.S. business outlook is less certain. “There are always protection deals – if you go early, the network will give you one or two points off,” says one buyer. “This is where it’s going to be: we need significant protection. Otherwise, people won’t move their money.” To generate early volume, this buyer says, the networks may have to concede several percentage points in the rate of CPM, a central measure that tracks the cost to reach 1,000 viewers.
Some executives see reason for the networks to resist such talk. There’s a slim chance the whole thing could work in their favor.
If NFL play is sustainable, and Major League Baseball can get a truncated season on the books, and other sports try similar methods, there could be a fourth quarter filled with big-audience games that would be supported by costlier “scatter” buys. Advertisers have already rushed to support such ancillary sports events as ESPN’s recent broadcast of the NFL Draft and a celebrity golf match featuring Tiger Woods , Tom Brady, Phil Mickelson and Peyton Manning organized by WarnerMedia. The availability of big-audience sports close to holiday gift-giving season would be tough for Madison Avenue to resist.
But this isn’t the fourth quarter. Much of the energy around the annual upfont session has dimmed this year, with some of the media companies – Disney, Fox and Discovery, for instance – holding smaller sessions with individual agencies. Gone are the parties filled with fresh sushi, Asian dumplings and shrimp cocktail, along with opportunities to meet Stephen Colbert or the cast of “The Goldbergs.”
The upfront presentations have been a staple of the media business cycle for decades, originally created to get automakers to commit ad budgets to TV in advance of introducing new vehicle models in the fall. In 2020, new TV shows launch at all times of the year (and so do new cars, movies, retail sales and home products). Behind the scenes, at industry trade organizations, there is growing chatter – and even a few official discussions – of trying to reorganize the calendar behind how Madison Avenue buys TV.
Until that time, there’s still reason to knock on doors in as normal fashion as one can muster. As head of ad sales for Fox Sports, Seth Winter will, if conditions are met, have approximately four months’ worth of Sunday and Thursday NFL games to sell, along with dozens of Major League Baseball games and Nascar races. His team met via video chats this week with major media agencies, including Omnicom Group’s Optimum Sports, Publicis Groupe’s Publicis Media Exchange and WPP’s GroupM.
“Those calls were very well received,” Winter says, particularly as buyers learned about potential season timelines and heard Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks discuss how Fox might produce telecasts of games without fans in the stands. Even Joe Buck, the veteran Fox Sports announcer, took part in the sessions.
Winter acknowledges he is trying to step forward on shifting terrain. “I’ve been through a number of recessions in my career,” he says, including the recovery from a big dip in economic activity in 2008 and the pullback after the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. In those cases, says Winter, “there was something predictable, a linear trajectory to recovery.” In 2020, “there are unforeseen impediments that are out of anyone’s control.” He adds: “There is no blueprint or proxy for this.” In the weeks to come, ad-sales executives will have to find their way through the fog.