TV Upfront

Inside CNN's upfront pitch to advertisers

At Horizon Media, CNN emphasizes 2020 election and digital reach

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Credit: CNN

CNN is making its rounds to media agencies with its upfront pitch, unsurprisingly leaning heavily into the 2020 presidential election.

This week the news behemoth brought its so-called CNN Experience to Horizon Media. The presentation comes on the heels of AT&T receiving approval from an appeals court to move forward with its acquisition of CNN parent WarnerMedia.

Now under AT&T's leadership, CNN President Jeff Zucker told Horizon staffers that the network will lean heavily into the company's data capabilities to grow its digital business. (Zucker also recently gained oversight of WarnerMedia's sports division.)

The news marketplace is certainly a sensitive one for many advertisers thanks to the highly divided political climate. And its only been exacerbated by drama surrounding media personalities.

Earlier in the week, Fox News hosted its first-ever upfront presentation at its headquarters where it addressed advertisers' concerns over current controversies surrounding its on-air hosts. (Tucker Carlson and Jeanine Pirro have seen some advertisers pull out of their respective shows due to comments the hosts have made.)

While Zucker didn't address those incidents directly, he assured Horizon executives that "What you get with us is a place you can rely on, you can feel safe with, and you can count on, and I don't think that's the case with every other outlet that's out there, but I think that's the thing you can always be proud of when you are associated with CNN."

Donna Speciale, president of ad sales at WarnerMedia, tells Ad Age that brand safety has always been an issue for advertisers in the news space, but has been emphasized in recent years due to issues surrounding digital behemoths.

"Brand safety is being talked about a lot because of Google and Facebook, so it just so happens to be the topic of conversation that then leads into it for news," she says. "But I think it is the halo effect of what Google and Facebook are going through and they are feeling it. Advertisers are pulling off them, not as much as I would like them to, but they are."

In October, the network rebranded CNN Money to CNN Business, and has shifted its focus from covering Wall Street to placing a greater emphasis on tech, Silicon Valley and business innovation. The vertical, Speciale says, provides an opportunity for marketers who "want to go a little more safer a route."

"When a client is considering a cable news buy the political climate is definitely a factor," says David Campanelli, exec VP, co-chief investment officer at Horizon Media. "Regardless of which cable news network we are considering, there is some amount of risk involved for an advertiser. That has to be factored into our conversations with clients and our decision making."

Speciale and her team will be pushing advertisers during the annual ad haggle to buy CNN across all platforms. In scatter, she said, CNN is not doing deals if a client isn't buying a lot of its digital and over-the-top inventory.

A big focus for CNN (as well as Fox News) in its pitch to advertisers is the 2020 election. Zucker pointed to the network's plans to host numerous Town Halls with candidates, as well as the second Democratic debate.

Similar to Fox News earlier in the week, CNN a brought a taste of its network to Horizon's office with host Chris Cuomo answering questions about the current political environment and upcoming election.

"Jeff [Zucker] and I talk about this all the time, the idea that this president is not that smart. Anyone who says that is stupid," Cuomo said. "He is an opportunist and he saw that people don't trust certain things. To people who feel disfranchised and disaffected, he has reached out to them and they believe they have an agent in him. So when the media says this person is lying, he has captured something that is very real, which is a lot of people don't trust the media, so who is the media to call this guy a liar when the media is a bunch of liars?"

In regard to CNN's role in covering all of this, while Cuomo sees a need for advocating for the people's point of view, he views CNN as the ref in the game.

"A lot of people don't want to watch the game for the referee, you watch for one team or the other team. And I am at the height of that at 9 o'clock at night," he said, pointing to Fox News' Sean Hannity and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow as the proponents of the two teams.

"Sean Hannity is the most powerful guy in the media on TV in my opinion because what he says the president of the United States does; I have never seen that before in media ever," Cuomo said.

CNN will host about a half dozen of these presentations at agencies over the next few weeks.

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