TV’s upfront market is starting to close, and ad dollars seem harder to collect.
NBCUniversal expects the volume of advance advertising commitments secured in the annual haggle to be “in the same range as last year,” according to Jeff Shell, CEO of the Comcast owned unit. He said that declines due to “cord cutting were offset by pricing and Peacock for us,” during remarks made at an investor conference organized by Credit Suisse. Variety estimated that NBCU secured between $2.68 billion and $2.98 billion for its primetime broadcast inventory in 2021, compared with $2.68 billion and $2.84 billion in 2020. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their commercial inventory for their next programming cycle in this annual negotiation between media companies and Madison Avenue.
“We are pretty much done,” said Shell, noting that NBCU still had a “smattering” of inventory to sell.
NBCU’s results reflect a somewhat softer market for TV. The haggling takes place in a tricky economy. The networks have largely agreed to take narrower pricing hikes than last year, according to multiple people familiar with the negotiations. Why? Because they realize that the threat of a recession and supply-chain issues have left their clients with less visibility into the future. Already, tech giant Microsoft has indicated it will sit out this year’s upfront, auto advertisers are pulling back, and the networks will have to hope the company will put money down in the so-called “scatter” market, when advertising is purchased much closer to air date.
In addition to the narrower price hikes, the networks are also granting more flexibility, giving advertisers new leeway to bump ad schedules if need be. “We are embracing flexibility more than ever,” says one buying executive. “ More flexible partners and clients will get more dollars.” Some networks may have pushed for hikes in the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers — a measure known as a CPM that is central to these annual discussions — as high as 11% to 12%. But the bulk of deals appear to be getting done at around 8% to 9%, according to media buyers and TV executives.
Shell also indicated the scatter market is weakening, noting that it is “definitely weaker than it was last week, last month, last year.”
His comments echo those of Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish, who described the advertising market Tuesday as “choppy” and noted that his company is seeing “some challenges, given the economic headwinds.” Bakish said Paramount Global was “80% to 90% done” with its upfront discussions.
Media buyers say Disney, Fox and NBCUniversal have been writing business the quickest, followed by Paramount Global and then Warner Bros. Discovery. That last entrant, more reliant on cable than its competitors, has been aggressively trying to secure more volume and higher pricing, even as its rivals agree to less onerous terms — and get deals done more quickly.
These buyers believe the streaming wars are hurting traditional cable TV the most.
Advertisers eager to get their pitches in front of streaming viewers are pulling dollars from traditional cable so they can put more of their money into streaming and sports, according to three media buyers with knowledge of discussions taking place. “Volume is shifting to sports and streaming, following consumption trends,” says one of these executives.
The dynamics at play threaten to squeeze cable further. In a different era, viewers flocked to gritty FX dramas and optimistic USA series at specific times and days. Now, the bold and non-traditional programming that has helped build TV brands like AMC and HBO is the exact type of thing that people like to binge-watch during streaming sessions of their own choosing. Cable’s upfront haul has already been in decline, shrinking to $9.72 billion last year, according to ad-spend tracker Media Dynamics Inc., compared with nearly $11.7 in the summer of 2019.
Traditional TV networks will continue to face a balancing act, offering the biggest linear audiences they can while trying to collect more advertising for streaming and digital. Interpublic Group’s Mediabrands, a large media buying operation, projected that advertising on national broadcast and cable would shrink 4.1% in 2022, to approximately $38.6 billion, while advertising for connected TV, broadband video and ad-supported video on demand was likely to increase 27.2% to $7 billion. The media buyer sees entertainment and travel marketers increasing their ad spending this year, as well as sports betting companies, but notes that big consumer-packaged goods companies, some of TV’s biggest sponsors, appear to be paring back. Retailers are facing headwinds, Medibrands said, and auto advertising “will likely not recover yet, as the lack of car inventory continues to be a major damp on ad budgets.”