ABC’s Ferro Calls Upfront Market ‘Healthier Than Anticipated’

Rita Ferro says her first upfront as ad sales president of Disney-ABC Television went surprisingly well.

The newly consolidated sales staff for the company’s broadcast, cable and digital assets took in more money than it expected and is set up to have a strong season, says Ferro, who a year ago was running sponsorship sales for Disney’s kids TV networks.

Before upfront negotiations began analysts forecasted lower sales volume for this upfront, with agencies holding on to dollars to keep prices lower after last year’s strong market.

But Ferro says that the budgets media agencies registered with the networks came in higher than it forecasted.

Related: CBS Finishes Upfront Sales With Higher Volume

“I have to say we saw a healthier market than I think folks anticipated originally. I think the outer dayparts in particular [late night, daytime, news] saw a significant amount of registration—much higher than we anticipated,” she told B&C.

Disney-ABC said its upfront revenue was up high-single digits across the board in all broadcast, cable and kids, with price increases on a cost-per-thousand viewers (CPM) basis in the high-single digits across all dayparts and cable. Prices were up in the low double-digit range for late night and kids.

Extra ad dollars came in from marketers in the consumer packaged goods and pharmaceuticals categories, which had already been big spenders in the scatter market—where ads are bought at the last minute—during the last few quarters, Ferro says.

“I think a lot of people know they had to lay their money down as part of the upfront if they wanted to makes sure they got in at the right price, and I think those categories realized how significant the CPMs were in scatter and really moved some money forward,” she said. But Ferro still has 2017-18 inventory to sell in scatter. In fact, advertisers might still want to add more dollars to their upfront buys before they’re finalized in the fall.

Additional Dollars

“People are coming back and saying ‘could you take an incremental?' So I think there’s going to be opportunity to really drive incremental in terms of scatter,” she said.

Ferro thinks that ABC’s results will be similar to what’s happening at the other big network companies. “In general I think we’re a pretty good indicator of what you’re going to see. They’re all going to tell you the outer dayparts are strong. I think they’re all going to say premium cable is strong,” she said.

The buoyancy of the upfront is a signal that at a time when the traditional TV business is under assault by digital media, and despite declining ratings, marketers still think TV advertising is vital to driving sales.

“There is not an advertiser who wouldn’t say that TV is not a pretty important tool in their mix,” she said. With TV, advertisers know what they’re buying, with premium content regardless of screen.

“There’s no question there’s opportunity to grow and expand and do things differently, and we’re all pushing in that direction and testing and trying new things on different platforms and different content lengths and content formats as well as advertisers actually testing different commercial lengths and different formats," Ferro said. “I still think ultimately people are still spending a lot of money on television, and I think that is going to continue to be the case, especially this next year.”

Data Coming

In upfront presentations, there was a lot of talk about using data to sell more precisely targeted TV audiences, but Ferro says most of her business was done using traditional C3 and C7 commercial ratings with age and sex demographics. A few deal included delayed viewing for a longer period than seven days, she says. Shifting more deals to C7 and beyond was not a priority at Disney-ABC because the company does a good job of monetizing digital video views—sometimes at a higher price than traditional TV.

Disney did one deal in which the client opted for a programmatic solution as part of the upfront. Others are still discussing joint data and insights opportunities.

But there is talk of innovating TV advertising.

Ferro says ABC has been experimenting with the short six-second ads that companies like YouTube and Fox have announced plans to air. ABC has even run short ads in both digital and linear content.

“I think there’s a lot more that remains to be done,” she said. “We are testing and really trying innovative formats” for both programing and advertising.

With the upfront done, ABC and others might take a closer look at OpenAP, the consortium launched by Viacom, Fox and Turner to standardize data-based audience buying.

“We’re all looking at different data marketplace opportunities. There’s going to be a lot coming out over the next couple of months from different companies trying different things,” she said. “We’re all trying to figure out what is the best solution for our clients, and wherever our clients want us to participate and be a part of, that’s what we’re going to be testing and learning on. We’re also doing our own proprietary upfront. We’re making a ton of investments in that area too.”

Familiar Faces

Though this was her first upfront heading the broadcast network, as well as cable and kids, Ferro says the process was familiar.

“An upfront is an upfront. It’s just a couple of more zeroes. It’s the same clients and the same agencies and basically the same dynamic,” she said.

It helped that, after garnering lower ratings in 2016-17, the ABC schedule for 2017-18 was well received by clients. “We think people are excited about the new shows that are coming,” including an updated version ofAmerican Idol. Asked if it had nailed down any big sponsors for Idol, ABC said it is working closely with producer Fremantle and would like those big sponsors to activate broadly, across digital and social in addition to TV.

“I think people were excited that we had a new way to come to market and a new way of doing business and we all are about being very customer centric,” Ferro said. “Our team did a great job and our clients really stepped up, so I’m very pleased about where the results are, and I’m really excited about what we’re going to be doing this fall with clients. I think there’s a ton of opportunity.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.