TV Upfront

Viacom looks to over-the-top TV to boost ad inventory at the upfronts

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'Jersey Shore Family Vacation.'
'Jersey Shore Family Vacation.' Credit: MTV

Viacom is embracing fragmentation—or, at least, getting its arms around all the viewers who've splintered off from traditional TV audiences to watch on their own time and on multiple, hard-to-measure mobile screens.

Its goal is to prove to advertisers at this year's upfront that it can find audiences no matter how they watch. Viacom, whose portfolio of cable networks includes MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and the new Paramount Network, will again make its pitch in a series of dinners instead of the glitzy presentations favored by most networks, aiming to talk with ad buyers in a more intimate setting.

Among the talking points at the dinners, which start this week, Viacom will tout more than two billion new impressions of digital inventory for the upcoming season thanks to deals with internet-delivered TV services like Sling TV and DirecTV Now.

"Where we have seen audiences digest our content wherever and whenever they want, that has become a challenge for marketers as well," says Sean Moran, who leads ad sales at Viacom. "The new advanced alliances we have created with the MVPDs … has given us new access to inventory and gives us capabilities to get into the addressable sphere." (MVPD is industry shorthand for "multichannel video programming distributor" and referred to cable or satellite TV providers, but now includes online TV services as well.)

These IP-delivered TV services allow for dynamic ad insertion, meaning marketers can swap out ads and serve different creative to different viewers based on location or a variety of other factors.

"Now you have brands that are trusted, brands that our clients know and respect and have worked with, and they can get digitally dynamically inserted in a way where they also have completion rates that are in the 97 percent to 98 percent range," Moran says. "It's just becoming a bit part of our offering, but it's only going to continue to grow at a tremendous rate over the next few years."

It's been a year since Viacom, under CEO Bob Bakish, has refocused its efforts on its six flagship cable channels—MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and Paramount—and negotiated new deals with large pay-TV operators.

Ratings declines at some of its biggest channels have begun to stabilize. MTV averaged 435,000 viewers in primetime in the first quarter, down just 2 percent from the same time last year, in live-plus-same-day Nielsen ratings.

And the revival of "Jersey Shore" became MTV's highest-rated new show in six years when it premiered last week to 2.5 million viewers and a 1.5 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic. Of course that still pales in comparison to the heydey of "Jersey Shore," when it averaged nearly 9 million viewers. Some 3 million people watched the original show's finale.

MTV renewed "Jersey Shore Family Vacation" for a second season before the series even aired. Moran says he has been unable to keep up with ad demand for the franchise.

"It is sold out and has become one of the hottest revivals," Moran says. (Other reboots at Viacom include the popular children's show "Blue's Clues," which Nickelodeon is bringing back.)

Still, there are plenty of unknowns as Viacoms enters the upfronts amid merger discussions with CBS. The company rejected an initial offer by CBS last week.

Viacom has felt the pangs of changing consumption habits perhaps even more so than other TV networks in recent years thanks to its slate of younger skewing channels, whose audiences are more inclined to consume content in non-traditional ways.

For this reason, Viacom has been looking to re-aggregate audiences on every platform. Late last year it created the Viacom Digital Studio to make content specifically for digital and social platforms. It also acquired the influencer marketing firm WhoSay in January. Viacom will discuss these initiatives at its first NewFront presentation in May.

Viacom's approach differs from some of its competitors, which have been talking about reducing ads loads or experimenting with new commercial formats like six-second commercials.

"We have a belief that it all needs to be brought together," Moran says. "We think it needs to be standardized. I feel like we are in a place digital display was at over 15 years ago when people started coming up with their own digital display ad formats and every other site had a way of being the most creative, most engaged, etc. It was all well and good except it made it almost impossible for brands to cut the right creative that could work efficiently across different platforms and I think we are starting to enter into that same zone."

Viacom is looking to work with other network sales leaders, agency partners and holding companies and showrunners to asses the ad formats that are out in the marketplace and agree on which are the right ones for the industry to adopt.

Viacom did introduce Paramount Network–a rebrand of Spike TV–at the beginning of the year with 30 percent fewer commercials in the first run of its original primetime shows.

Contributing: Anthony Crupi

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