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ABC and ESPN ad sales teams made a clear signal to advertisers during their respective upfront presentations this week that the two groups are open to doing business together.
It's a new message for the networks. Despite having the same parent in Walt Disney Co., the two haven't purposefully gone to market with deals that combine inventory from both channels. While there have been some deals done quietly with select clients, according to the heads of both networks' ad sales operations, ESPN and ABC ad sales have always primarily operated in separate silos. ESPN took over control of programming and ad sales for ABC Sports in 2006.
Media buyers say it is rare to see deals done with ESPN and ABC in unison.
But that could be changing. Ed Erhardt, president of global customer marketing and sales at ESPN, and Geri Wang, president of ABC Sales, each made on-stage cameos at the other network's upfront presentation this week, announcing a new advertiser sponsorship initiative called "Fan for Life."
The concept is intended to celebrate parents and the roles they play as their kids participate in sports. "Fan for Life" will include a series of video vignettes featuring personalities from both channels and will appear on ABC shows like "Good Morning America" and ESPN programs like "SportsCenter." The networks are seeking sponsors for the effort, which will run from Mother's Day through Father's Day next year.
"Geri and I both felt there was an opportunity for ABC and ESPN to come to the marketplace with ideas," Mr. Erhardt said, adding that they speak regularly on ways to work together.
"Fan for Life" is just the first of what Mr. Erhardt and Ms. Wang say is a multitude of opportunities for advertisers.
"We share a lot of the same clients and they often ask us if there are any 'big' concepts we can bring to the table," Ms. Wang said. The move toward collaboration is a direct response to advertisers' desire to reach more people by buying the networks at once, she said.
ABC skews decidedly more female, while ESPN is predominantly a male brand, making the decision, "common sense" and complimentary, Ms. Wang said.
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Mr. Erhardt and Ms. Wang said they held off on announcing their interest in working together until they has a specific initiative in place to demonstrate what a partnership could look like. But Mr. Erhardt said the collaboration won't be limited to "Fan for Life."
There will be several major live events in the first two weeks of January that could help advertisers span the networks, Mr. Erhardt said, pointing to "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest" on ABC and college football championships on ESPN.
Ms. Wang said both channels have their fair share of live TV, which some advertisers like for its immediacy and resistance to commercial-skipping, such as "Good Morning America" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on ABC and games and shows like "SportsCenter" on ESPN.
The partnership is also ideally a data play for both networks. Disney as a whole is a treasure trove of consumer data, gleaned, for example, from its TV apps, websites and theme parks. Mr. Erhardt said they could responsibly use that first-party data from across the company to its advantage for clients. "In a world where everyone is experimenting with data, you need to have scale for it to make sense," he said.
Several buyers said the partnership makes sense, but others had trouble envisioning exactly what a deal between the two would look like, and some say the appearance at each other's upfronts was "lip service." Buyers also questioned what types of advertiser and categories would be interested in a cross-network deal with two very different brands.
"There's not necessarily a marketplace need for it," said one buyer, who wished to remain anonymous amid the start of upfront negotiations. "It seems more like, 'this is what people are doing so we need to pretend we are too.'"
TV networks with the same parent company have increasingly been coming together to combine the reach of their networks for advertisers. NBC Universal went to market for the first time during last year's upfronts with broadcast, cable and digital all under one umbrella, while Turner Broadcasting is adopting a similar strategy this year.