Flexibility is key and marketers call for a revamp of the upfronts: Ad Age TV Pivot
Welcome to Day 1 of our special-edition Ad Age TV Pivot newsletter.
A message from Ad Age Senior Editor Jeanine Poggi: This week we would all typically be gathered in New York—getting our pictures taken with the cast of “This Is Us,” feasting on a buffet of sushi in Central Park and braving the winding steps of the Beacon Theatre. While we may not get the opportunity to hobnob with celebrities in person or share a cocktail, here at Ad Age we didn’t want the usual upfront week to go by without finding a way to gather the leaders in TV advertising to discuss the state of the TV marketplace and the way forward for the industry.
In our special two-day TV Pivot event, Ad Age is bringing together sales leaders from media conglomerates, along with major marketers and media buyers, to discuss how they are navigating challenges like live sports, just how much business they expect to strike during the annual ad haggle and what forms of innovation they hope will emerge during the crisis.
You can catch up on what you may have missed from Day 1, below, in our executive summary courtesy of Ad Age’s Ethan Jakob Craft. And if you haven't already, be sure to register to join us for Day 2.
Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility
If there’s one word that sums up industry leaders’ collective mantra heading into the TV premiere cycle, it’s “flexibility,” according to Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer at ViacomCBS. (Watch her session starting at the 2:10 mark in the video archived here.)
With CBS renewing 80 percent of its shows for next season, Ross added that viewers and clients should tentatively look to the fall for premieres, though she prefers to keep the timeframe vague until firmer commitments can be made. “Flexibility is the key word here,” she said—especially as the network looks to broadcast Super Bowl LV as scheduled in 2021.
Read more about Ross’ outlook for the rest of the year here.
Fox lays out scheduling plans
With a series of scripted shows, reality programming and live-sports contracts in the can, Fox has moved ahead with releasing its fall line-up and will be working out contingency plans in a bid to deliver its typical rotation of TV later this year.
With stalwarts such as “Masterchef Junior” complementing shows like “Filthy Rich” and “NeXt,” which were already in the works pre-pandemic, the network should be flexible enough to deliver its typical load of content this fall, said Fox’s president of ad sales Marianne Gambelli. (Watch her session starting at the 1:15 mark in the video archived here.)
And given the NFL’s announcement last week that its season is slated to kick off on Sep. 10, Gambelli even speculated that some of Fox’s flagship programming, such as the “The Masked Singer,” could be swapped for sports in the event of coronavirus-related production delays.
The promise of live sports, plus Fox’s string of long-running animated series—which have transitioned to remote production—seem to have instilled some early confidence that a return to normal is on the horizon. “We’re seeing more optimism” from advertisers, said Gambelli. “We will open up, it’s just a matter of when. There may be starts and stops that I think we all will have to be prepared for, but I feel like we have to plan, we have to move forward.”
In search of a ‘commitment to firm dollars’
While flexibility is critical for clients amid the coronavirus pandemic, having solid advertising commitments is still a critical piece of bedrock that networks need to move forward successfully and remain profitable, said Peter Olsen, president of ad sales for A+E Networks, in the second session of Ad Age’s TV Pivot event. (Watch his session starting at the 24:45 mark in the video archived here.)
“There still needs to be a commitment to firm dollars that’s high enough for us to still manage our business,” Olsen said, adding that while he’s sympathetic to advertisers who aren’t ready to talk business just yet, upholding a sense of normalcy will ensure the health of the TV ecosystem.
A+E has its own employees to worry about, Olsen added, calling for networks and advertisers to have a “good, honest discussion” about how to best move forward so that “fruitless” predictions don’t impact anyone’s bottom dollar. “We’ve made our way through this quarter, we’ll make our way through the next quarter, and we’ll make our way through this year.”
In for the long haul
“I think we are in for a long upfront process,” said Jon Steinlauf, chief U.S. advertising sales officer, Discovery. (Watch his session starting at the 19:55 mark in the video archived here.)
Many of Discovery’s core categories are stable, and advertisers on the whole are not rushing to cancel ad buys, Steinlauf noted—some are even trying to add in scatter. “They will be looking to get deals done, maybe not as early as in the past, but I’m thinking June and July,” he said.
All eyes on streaming, OTT for 2020
With several high-profile streaming services debuting over the past year, coupled with the stay-at-home order that’s led to increased streaming viewership, OTT will be an important part of upfront conversations.
Fox acquired Tubi earlier this year for $440 million, ViacomCBS has the ad-supported Pluto TV and WarnerMedia is preparing to debut HBO Max later this month.
“We’re ready, they’re ready, no matter what length of time they want to talk about,” said Joe Hogan, WarnerMedia’s executive VP of sales and marketing, of prospective advertisers. While HBO Max will go live without ads on May 27, the platform will transition to an ad-supported model by early 2021.
Time to reinvent the upfront?
The TV upfronts are pegged to sales metrics that are less relevant than they were a decade ago and this year’s coronavirus situation is a great opportunity to effect change, suggested Matt VanDyke, Ford Motor Co.’s director of U.S. marketing. (Watch his roundtable session starting at the 49:35 mark in the video archived here.)
“The auto category is responsible for why the upfront takes place in the spring and culminates in the fall—when new programming starts with when new cars used to go on sale.” But for VanDyke, that schedule represents an old way of thinking, and he’s advocating for the upfronts to switch to a calendar-year basis that better aligns with contemporary marketing practices.
Investing in cross-platform measurement and improving the legacy holdovers that define the upfronts are two changes that VanDyke hopes can be accelerated, given the forced change of format to this year’s events.
What upfront attendees won’t miss about the dog-and-pony shows
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shuttering New York and making traditional upfronts impossible, TV execs have had to do some creative maneuvering to get their pitches out to the marketplace. While this week will lack the standard glitz and glamour, industry executives aren’t longing for the snaking traffic and spotty Wi-Fi. With that in mind, Ad Age asked a handful of industry leaders about what they’re not sad to skip this year. A sampling of their answers:
“What I won't miss is the constant FOMO—like Tad Allagash in ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ certain that wherever I was at any time there was always some other place even more happening!”
—Dave Morgan, CEO, Simulmedia
“I won’t miss: all the conflicting ‘reviews’ of each presentation; putting on suits that are just ‘a bit’ tighter than last year; lines in the rain; hearing all the buzzwords [what would the winning phrase have been this year!?]; seeing all the ways the obvious is twisted into the complicated.”
—Adam Gerber, president, global media, Essence
“Having to travel on Mother’s Day.”
—Carrie Drinkwater, executive director, investment activation, MediaHub Global
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That's it for today. Thanks for joining us and we'll see you tomorrow at 11 a.m. EDT for Day 2.