Marshall said the NFL has been clear that there are different options and levels of flexibility, including starting the season later if need be.
CBS will air the Super Bowl in February, and Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer, ViacomCBS, said they are currently in conversations with advertisers for commercial time in the big game. “And obviously there will be a big asterisk, the 'what if.' What if is isn't in February? What if it has to slide? What if it gets, basically, lengthened because of a late start?"
College football is perhaps the biggest unknown. “SEC, which is our conference, we're going to need a little bit more time I think to learn where college football is,” Ross said. “Because the students have to return to campus, for college students and college athletes. Those conversations are ongoing."
And with the likelihood that most sports will be played in empty or half-empty arenas, “the broadcast component becomes even more important,” said Matt VanDyke, director of marketing, Ford.
For advertisers, there’s little that can actually replace live sports viewership.
“The real answer is there is not a replacement for the NBA Finals; there is not a replacement for the NFL,” said David Campanelli, exec VP, chief investment officer, Horizon Media. “There's no single place where you can go and buy that same level of exposure, that same level of impact, the same level of fan engagement.”
Catalyst for ad innovation
The industry is hoping the pandemic could actually help speed up ad innovation that has been slowly building steam over the past few years.
“Never let a crisis go to waste,” said ViacomCBS’s Ross.
Perhaps the biggest push continues to be to move beyond traditional Nielsen age and gender metrics as currency.
“Adults 25-to-54 is not the future, and for a business like us where less than half of all adults buy a new vehicle in their lifetime, targeting and precision marketing is crucial,” said Ford's VanDyke.
“Buy TV for what TV is really good at, not for what TV's not good at. TV is not really good at reaching people under 35; most people who subscribe to cable are over 35,” said Jon Steinlauf, chief U.S. advertising sales officer, Discovery. “My opinion is that the demos are too young, that advertisers are buying too young. That's what created the supply problem in the first place. I think we've got to stabilize this business by selling television the way digital is sold.”
If the TV industry doesn’t use this time to reassess commercial loads and ad formats, Catherine Sullivan, chief investment officer, North America, Omnicom Media Group, said, “I think you’re not even going to have prime in a few years.”
TV execs described the first few weeks after the pandemic hit the U.S. with full force as chaotic, with marketers’ situations changing hour to hour in some cases. While it seems things have since calmed down, the sell side and buy side don’t fully agree on the degree of stability of the marketplace.
Media buyers estimated between 20 percent and 30 percent of committed ad dollars will be pulled back in the third quarter.
“Since I’ve sat on both sides of the table, I’ve never seen options like this, but I’ve also never seen anything like this in my career—I don’t think any of us have. There are no winners, quite frankly, during this pandemic; there’s just to what level of loss are you having,” said Omnicom's Sullivan. And she doesn’t expect the remainder of 2020 to get any better.
The TV sellers are less pessimistic.
“We’re speaking to marketers, and there are some that need to take their inventory and give it back, but we plan for that every single year,” said Laura Molen, co-president, advertising sales and partnerships, NBCU.
The CW Network, is seeing its options come in as expected pre-pandemic, according to Rob Tuck, exec VP, national sales. “I think we’re tracking along the lines we had assumed,” he said.
But a clearer picture may not come for a few more weeks, as clients are asking for extensions on options.
“We’ve got a lot of advertisers who are asking for additional time to make decisions. As it looks right now, [it’s] a little bit below what we anticipated and what we projected, but I don’t think we’ve seen the full story there yet. I expect that by the end of May we’ll have a very good read on it,” said Steve Mandala, president of ad sales and marketing at Univision.
Kim Kelleher, president of commercial revenue and partnerships at AMC Networks, also expects to have a better handle on how the third quarter is pacing within a few weeks. “Several partners have exercised options; several partners have asked for more time so they can review their strategies,” she said.
Shift to streaming
With the birth of several high-profile streaming services over the past few months, including NBCU’s Peacock, Quibi and the upcoming HBO Max, streaming was certainly poised to be a hot topic during this year’s ad haggle.
The pandemic-induced lockdowns have only served to accelerate a consumer behavior that’s already been on the rise, with an uptick in streaming activity as people are forced to stay at home.
“I think people are getting comfortable with the platforms,” Fox’s Gambelli said. “They're seeing the ad load is lighter, the engagement is better. And there's a lot of impressions there that may not exist as other things have come down. So I think that this will drive more viewership.”
“I think what is happening now is only going to accelerate the streaming usage and OTT usage,” said Horizon’s Campanelli. “But if you’re just planning now on shifting to the streaming space, OTT space, you’ve missed the boat.”
While HBO Max won’t launch with commercials, Joe Hogan, exec VP of sales and marketing at WarnerMedia, said they are looking to apply what they have learned from reducing commercial loads on linear networks like TruTV. “Where do we see high areas of attentiveness, high areas of recall, high areas of likability? And how can advertisers get even further embedded with our fans and fan franchises? We're very excited about it.”