Disney Plans TV Upfront Shake Up as Networks Return to In-Person Presentations (EXCLUSIVE)

Courtesy of Disney

After mounting glitzy presentations to advertisers at a stately Lincoln Center auditorium for decades as part of the TV industry’s annual upfronts, Disney now plans a big break with Madison Avenue tradition.

The owner of ABC, ESPN and Hulu intends to ask advertisers and buyers to convene at a new, as-yet-undisclosed location where executives can interact with the company’s entire media portfolio in a more hands-on way, says Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales.

“We need to modernize our presentation and how we show up,” Ferro told Variety. Doing so has become increasingly important as more advertisers look for ways to run commercials alongside video content that appears simultaneously across many kinds of media outlets and use data to purchase ad time with more precision. Ferro expects to invite advertisers to a new kind of Disney upfront showcase that is experiential in nature, she says. In the months ahead of the extravaganza, the company will hold separate presentations, some virtual, for programmatic advertising in live events, on October 27; a week of discussions about advertising technology and data, in late February and early March; and sports in April.

After two years of unveiling their new programming lineups through sterile virtual showcases, more of the nation’s big TV companies are plotting a return to in-person events. The TV companies are mindful of coronavirus conditions, but eager to meet with clients in person as the process of buying ads grows exponentially more complex.

WarnerMedia is making plans for a presentation that can be attended in person or watched virtually, says JP Colaco, head of the company’s advertising sales, in an interview, and will remain flexible to accommodate advertisers’ needs. NBCUniversal, which typically kicks off the annual industry ritual known as “Upfront Week” with a boisterous display at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, plans a return to a live event, according to a company spokesman, with a virtual option for those who may want it. Discovery is considering a “hybrid” event, according to a person familiar with the matter, that people could attend physically or virtually. The CW, jointly owned by WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS, is “actively exploring options” for a possible in-person event in New York in May, a person familiar with the matter says.  ViacomCBS and Fox Corp. have yet to nod to plans, but ViacomCBS hopes to bring advertisers together physically, according to a person familiar with the matter

The networks have for two years running scuttled their live extravaganzas, part of what has typically been a very public mid-May week of hoopla that the industry counts on to drum up interest and demand in their shows and ad inventory — from the viewing public at large as well as Madison Avenue. “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; sneak peeks at  “Star Trek” relaunches; and conversations with Charles Barkley about basketball.

Without the big events, which cost millions and are undergirded by complex logistics, the networks are left without a major calling card for one of their top business tasks: luring billons of dollars from top marketers that range from Apple to Zyrtec. Variety estimates NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and the CW secured between $8.2 billion and $10.1 billion for their 2021-2022 primetime schedules, compared with between $9.6 billion and $10.8 in the previous season.

The in-person meet-ups could help the media companies jump-start the important talks as the world of video advertising has grown more competitive, and even a little confusing. The TV networks have more competitors.  YouTube and Facebook both offer original video series, and Amazon has purchased the rights to stream the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football.”

But the TV companies also have more varied inventory to sell. A significant chunk of the ad dollars once earmarked for linear primetime TV have migrated to streaming services that include Disney’s Hulu, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, NBCU’s Peacock, Fox’s Tubi, ViacomCBS’ Paramount Plus and Discovery’s Discovery Plus.

Consider Disney’s new rights to show games from the National Hockey League on TV networks like ESPN and ABC as well as the streaming outlet ESPN Plus. The company has enlisted wide-scale ad support for many permutations of hockey content. Expedia is the presenting sponsor of 25 games slated to air on ABC and ESPN, with New Amsterdam Vodka serving in that role for 75 national games set to stream on ESPN Plus and Hulu. Procter & Gamble is sponsoring a new ESPN2 hockey show, “The Point,” starting in 2022. And Discover will support “In The Crease,” a new ESPN Plus studio show about hockey during the post-season.

When it comes to holding an event next May, Ferro says, Disney intends to monitor government standards and health recommendations, and will likely require in-person attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative test for coronavirus.

In an industry that is rapidly being fueled by new kinds of consumer data and an influx of digital ad inventory, the media companies have a heady task in front of them. “We need to create the biggest unique opportunities for each one of our clients around customized ad solutions,” says Ferro. With so much up for discussion, it’s little wonder why the networks want to meet at a table, not via a Zoom screen.