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Networks Scuttle Live Upfront Presentations Amid Coronavirus Concerns

ViacomCBS, Walt Disney, WarnerMedia, Fox, Discovery, The CW, and NBCUniversal said they would cancel the glitzy “upfront” sales events they hold each year to convince advertisers to commit billions of dollars to its programming, the latest sign of how the spreading coronavirus crisis is affecting the dynamics of the media industry.

The companies said they would stream presentations instead, vowing to offer entertaining showcases to Madison Avenue in alternate fashion. Disney was the only big TV company that had yet to say whether it would cancel the event it typically holds at Lincoln Center every year.

The decisions essentially wipe out a very public week of celebration and hoopla that the media industry has long counted on to drum up interest and demand – from Madison Avenue and the viewing public at large. “Upfront Week” brings with it lots of song-and-dance routines; meetings and dinners with advertisers; news about new programs and actors taking part in TV series; and sneak peeks at everything from “Star Trek” relaunches to a “Batwoman” drama.

The networks said they would keep their digital presentations to a schedule that corresponds to the physical schedule they had been expected to maintain. NBCUniversal will make a digital presentation on May 11. Discovery will present on May 12. CBS and WarnerMedia will use May 13 to showcase their new programs and features.

In a variety of statements, the networks said they felt a streamed presentation would communicate just as much information as a traditional one — while keeping clients and others who might have attended safe.

“We have the technological and creative means to showcase our unified WarnerMedia/Xandr message through a unique video experience and will do just that on May 13,” said Gerhard Zeiler, Chief Revenue Officer, WarnerMedia and Kirk McDonald, Chief Business Officer, Xandr, in a joint statement. Xandr is an ad-tech unit also owned by AT&T that is going to market alongside WarnerMedia this year.

Walt Disney said it was “reinventing” both the May showcase it holds for ABC, ESPN, Freeform, FX and Nat Geo, as well as an event it presents a few weeks earlier for the Hulu streaming service. “Production plans are already underway to develop two star-studded and innovative streaming events, showcasing the breadth and depth of Disney’s rich portfolio and infrastructure,” the company said.

“At this moment in time, we can embrace a new future that puts our audiences and our partners first. This year’s Upfront Presentation will ensure everyone’s safety, while allowing us to give fans and marketers a preview of the upcoming season,” said Linda Yaccarino, Chairman of Advertising & Partnerships, NBCUniversal, in a statement.

“Our team has been planning for this possibility for weeks, and we have devised a digital showcase to unveil all of the premium content that we’re delivering throughout the company, from CBS Television Network and our robust cable portfolio across the Entertainment & Youth and Premium brands,” said Jo Ann Ross, President and Chief Advertising Revenue Officer, ViacomCBS Domestic Advertising Sales, in a statement. “We won’t miss a beat in engaging with clients around our unmatched offerings and solutions.”

“We have a terrific story to tell and more opportunities and products than ever for current and prospective advertisers,” said Jon Steinlauf, Discovery’s Chief U.S. Ad Sales Officer. “We will just tell that story in a way that best suits these unprecedented times.”

“We are currently exploring alternative and innovative ways of communicating The CW’s overall strategy, showcase our new and returning programming and present our upcoming fall schedule to advertisers, press, the industry and our fans,” The CW said in a statement.” We will be sharing additional details as we move forward.”

“We are reimagining our presentation to engage our clients using a new format that will highlight the quality content the industry expects from Fox,” said Marianne Gambelli, Fox’s president of advertising.”As the leading broadcast network this season, we have so much to build on and share, and we look forward to doing that in this new way.”

The TV industry’s upfront presentations represent a media-industry tradition that have been in place for decades, and the market was originally conceived as a way of capturing ad dollars in advance from the auto industry, dovetailing the start of the new TV season with the debut of new vehicles.

Those business processes have changed, however. Advertisers have more original programming to support year round, and, more often than not, must calibrate viewing patterns across all kinds of screens and time periods. The meetings have at times grown unwieldy and every year, some media observer calls for the big upfront events to be scrapped. But Madison Avenue executives, who are the ones being courted, still seem to like the affairs.

Others had already decided to turn away from physical meetings. Fox News Channel and A+E Networks have scrapped live upfront events scheduled for March in favor of individual client meetings, also citing concerns about coronavirus spread.

Even so, a person familiar with the matter says ViacomCBS still sees value in the events, and hopes to return to a normal week in 2021.

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