TV Upfront

Politics Might Be Everywhere, but Probably Not in the TV Upfronts

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Sean Spicer at a White House press briefing on March 23.
Sean Spicer at a White House press briefing on March 23. Credit: Fox News

Political unrest has seeped into everything from the Super Bowl to the Oscars, but when it comes to TV's annual upfront haggle, the consensus is the debate incited by Donald Trump's presidency will largely remain out of it.

The election cycle has surely resulted in a meaningful shift in the types of content people are watching, having been credited with essentially rescuing a cable news business that was at death's doorstep. And while cable news programming, along with late-night comedy, will likely garner more attention in the minds of advertisers, overall politics aren't making media buyers reframe where marketers should place their ad dollars.

"This election cycle -- before, during, and post-election -- has had some significant impact on the ways people are consuming media, which contributes to the continued evolution of the media landscape," said Neil Vendetti, president-investment, Zenith "Strategically, though, unless a client's business is directly impacted by policy decisions, politics likely won't play a role on our media recommendations."

"Politics are not a significant factor in our network selections outside of news," said David Campanelli, exec VP-managing partner video investment at Horizon Media.

Overall, there's been a lull in the so-called scatter market. And while it is hard to pin the softness on politics specifically, the climate over the last few months has created a level of uncertainty that could keep marketers holding back.

"I think that if we expect political chaos to become more pronounced over the next couple of months, it would be hard to imagine that there wouldn't be an effect on the broader economy, or at least on risks to expectations for macro growth," said Brian Wieser, senior research analyst, Pivotal Research Group. "That could push advertisers to wait-and-see more than might have otherwise been the case."

There are some clients who have been tentative with their marketing spend as they wait and see how some political decisions could have an impact on their business, said one TV ad sales executive.

Cable news will likely be the biggest beneficiary of surge in interest in politics, with Fox News, CNN and MSNBC breaking ratings records even post-election. Fox News ranks as the No. 1 cable news network in primetime for nine consecutive weeks, while Sean Spicer's White House press briefings that have aired live on cable news networks have bested viewership of daytime soap operas.

This adds some much needed gross ratings points to a marketplace that in recent years has been starved for commercial inventory. But not all advertisers want to be in news programming.

"News is through the roof and a place to get GRPs but advertisers are a bit leery about what is going on. It is tricky," Mr. Campanelli said. "Most advertisers don't rule out buying news completely, but it is not as big of an opportunity as if we saw ratings increases elsewhere."

Outside of news, the influence of politics during the upfronts becomes less clear. Certainly, there have been more programs in recent months that have subtly, or not so subtly taken a stance on the cultural environment. Series like ABC's "Black-ish" have outwardly weighed in on the election of Donald Trump, while specials like "When We Rise," about the struggles of LGBT activists, which recently aired on ABC, and Fox's 10-part miniseries "Shots Fired," about two racially charged shootings in a small town, certainly feel more relevant in the current environment.

It remains to be seen if TV networks will get heavy-handed in picking up shows that have more social messages for the fall season. NBC and CBS spokespeople declined to comment on if politics is playing a role in the selection process.

And in the same way many marketers are taking a new look at their messaging to consumers not on either of the coasts, it's also worth watching to see whether there will be a drive toward programming that pays more attention to people who were overlooked during the presidential campaign.

For the most part, it is expected TV networks will prefer to remain in neutral territory.

"We are happily removed from that whole world and it is where we want to be," said Kathleen Finch, chief programming, content and brand officer, Scripps Networks, in an interview last month. "We have always prided ourselves on being a family-friendly, upbeat, happy place, and you don't really see us influenced by the news or current events or anything else, and that is sort of purposeful."

"Food, home and travel should be happy things, so no matter what is going on in the world, we will maintain our voice and maintain our brand," added Ms. Finch, whose networks include Food Network and HGTV. "Regardless if it is politics or tornados, or whatever it is, we really do maintain what we do every single day, and that consistency is why viewers keep coming back. If we got reactionary to things going on in the world I think we would be letting out viewers down."

A&E Networks, which hosted its upfront presentation earlier in the week, didn't directly address politics or the tense cultural environment. Nonetheless, the company certainly took a more inspirational tone with its messaging on networks like Lifetime and History, versus some of the loud, drama-filled shows it has showed off in years past.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that President Trump won't at least be mentioned over the coming weeks during networks' pitches to clients and media buyers.

Last year's upfront presentations were dominated by another political figure -- Alexander Hamilton -- with multiple networks spoofing or alluding to the hit Broadway show "Hamilton."

It would be surprising if the late-night hosts who typically take the stages to poke fun at advertisers didn't throw in some jokes about our current administration.

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