Broadcast Networks Have Set Their Schedules, But What Time Does Upfront Ad Buying Start?

Now that the last broadcast network (ABC) has set its 2020-21 schedule, the next question for the TV business is how and when networks will sell upfront advertising that helps keep the lights on.

Madison Avenue marketing plans are on an uneven footing due to COVID-19, and the typical upfront negotiations held in the springtime are expected to drag on through the summer. Live sports’ return remains a major question mark and production is at a standstill of now, leading most forecasters to predict the steepest drops in TV ad spending in at least a decade.

In this murky climate, the broadcast networks have taken strikingly different approaches to scheduling and their message to advertisers. Fox and the CW are keeping most of their programming powder dry until January, while ABC, CBS and NBC are planning “regular” slates starting in the fall, with all but a small handful of shows renewed from last season.

About one-third of the roughly $65 billion in annual TV ad spending occurs during the upfront, which many advertisers regard as an anachronism long overdue for a revamp. The Association of National Advertisers recently called on networks to move to a calendar-year upfront, among other changes. NBCUniversal ad chief Linda Yaccarino responded this week in an open letter that argued there are bigger issues than just the schedule that need addressing.

While the coronavirus pandemic has hobbled the TV ad sector for practical reasons, it has also highlighted systemic issues that have long created friction between buyers and sellers. It has forced media companies to play 3-D chess as they reconsider many business practices that have prevailed for half a century. ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke, for example, told Deadline she hopes a “silver lining” of COVID-19 will be it pushing the network to shift to year-round pilot production. She said the move would be “better for all facets of the business,” including advertising.

“Upfronts have a place, the timing of which is up for debate at this point,” Ed Gaffney, a managing partner at major media agency GroupM said Tuesday on a virtual panel organized by ComScore. “The futures market is a good thing for both sides. … there’s a reason for doing it. The timing of it has never been perfect for everybody, nor will it ever be perfect for everybody. So you’ve got to find ways to be more flexible, and in this kind of environment, everybody’s starting to think out of the box.”

Networks have expressed some willingness to be flexible, but their parent companies are bleeding cash, especially with theatrical moviegoing and theme parks offline. Therefore, they are also emphasizing their main bit of leverage, which is the ability to offer lower prices and guarantees to buyers buying up front as opposed to in the scatter market closer to when shows actually air.

“To the extent that people want to play in scatter because they can’t commit to the upfront, they’re going to pay a premium,” ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said Tuesday at the Credit Suisse Virtual Media Conference. “So, that is an incentive to transact.”

Bakish said the upfront market “will probably start later and take longer” than in typical years, with “staggered” dealmaking over the coming weeks and months.

Asked at the Credit Suisse conference for his outlook on 2020 ad revenue, a metric on which media executives routinely offer guidance, Fox COO John Nallen demurred. He said the status and details of sports’ return are too big a variable to overlook. Until the NFL reveals more details about its stated plan to kick off its season as scheduled in September, he said, “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of robust activity from us in the ad market.”

Bakish said marketers “are in different states of readiness.” Categories like insurance, telecom and pharmaceuticals are stronger than ever, while automotive, restaurants, movies and travel have all but disappeared from the airwaves.

CBS offers advertisers a “strong and stable schedule,” with 23 returning shows, Bakish said. “Advertisers know what they’re buying when they’re going to ViacomCBS.” Not so at other networks, he maintained.

Plenty of buyers are getting restless with dialogue with networks about the logistics of the upfront market, when they feel the issues are much more comprehensive than that.

“When you sell mass consumer products like Unilver does, TV is one of the very important elements in the media mix,” Unilever’s Jeni Gardner, senior media director in North America, said on the Comscore panel. “But TV is changing, and how people consume content is changing. … There’s a lot of work to be done in the industry to drive greater accountability in all of the other areas of video.”

Streaming services, she noted, while a new point of emphasis for linear network parents, have “a lot of measurement challenges” even compared with Nielsen linear ratings. “The challenge is, we just focus on the timing conversation,” she said. “We get so myopic about timing that we don’t come to the table together.

Charlie Chappell, head of integrated media and communication planning for Hershey, said marketers often have to stick to their own internal goals and definitions.

“We just refer to ‘video’ now” instead of differentiating television from digital platforms. “The old question — ‘Oh, what percentage of your budget is on TV?’ — we don’t ask that question anymore because it’s really irrelevant.”

As COVID-19 shut down the U.S. and swept across the world over the past few months, he said, “We found ourselves having a whole new level of being able to be agile as to how we move our media to where the consumer is and it was very interesting to see how different parts of the ecosystem responded to that.”

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