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Ad Sales Chiefs Talk Data and Digital, But Want Dollars

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In the lead-up to TV’s upfront advertising market, the broadcast networks’ top sales people say they’ve been having conversations about data and innovation.

But when negotiations get real, this year’s upfront will look a lot like last season, with little growth in the market and each network claiming it’s got something new to increase its share of volume.

“What we see is there’s no real giant indicator that tells us anything other than the upfront market will likely be very similar to last year,” says Linda Yaccarino, president for ad sales at NBCUniversal.

In a flat-at-best market, ever-optimistic sales execs think they can prosper by having something new to sell or by finding a new way to sell it.

CBS, for example, has the NFL coming to primetime. “We have an upside with Thursday Night Football coming to our prime schedule which of course has the added bonus of affording us more originals on air,” says Jo Ann Ross, president of sales for the CBS Television Networks. “We feel in the lead-up to the upfront we have a lot of good news coming out of CBS in terms of our stability, we have hits across the board, we are a broadcaster, we capture a large audience and we don’t depend on one or two shows to bolster us.”

NBCU CEO Steve Burke has talked about wanting to capitalize on its higher ratings going into this year’s upfront after a decade bringing up the rear. To do that, the network needs to close what it says is a 20% gap in prices on a cost-per-thousand viewers (CPM) basis, and it also must monetize all the viewership of its shows not currently counted by Nielsen as part of the C3 commercial ratings used as currency by the ad business.

“I’m happy to be at the network that is experiencing the growth,” says NBCU’s Yaccarino. “It’s been a pretty amazing thing to watch here. And then when you layer in the sports, it just fuels the fire with the Olympics, and this year with the Super Bowl, from the World Cup to the Stanley Cup, Sunday Night Football.”

With NBC having low prices and a large number of ratings points available, the net could draw ad dollars from its rivals.

“You might see a shift to one broadcast network,” Yaccarino says. “We’ve got the incredible ratings point situation we’re in across the entire portfolio.”

Beyond ratings, NBCU is looking at different ways to monetize the eyeballs it attracts across broadcast, cable and digital. “We’re open to and actually having many conversations with different measurement guarantees. And that could expand beyond C3 and C7. It’s looking at multiplatform, total audience measurement,” she says.

Geri Wang, president of sales and marketing at ABC, notes that there’s a lot of talk about rating erosion, but when you added in C3 and on-demand viewing, “we have a lot of interesting data points that show we can reach as many people as we historically were able to do.” She adds that, “When you look at the overall picture, I’m not just breaking it out for broadcast. I look at the whole ecosystem and I look at the video marketplace, and the video marketplace is not shrinking.”

New Strategy Play

In last year’s upfront, Fox’s volume fell more than 10% because of lower ratings, led by the decline of the once-dominant American Idol. Idol and Fox were down again in the 2013-14 season, but the network has poured hundreds of millions into programming and adopted a yearround development strategy to create series and “event programming” to reverse the trend.

“It’s the first upfront we’ve had with this programming strategy fully formed and in place,” says Toby Byrne, president, advertising sales, Fox Broadcasting and Fox Sports Media Group.

The new strategy should help with advertisers. “When we had our program meetings in March we were able to tell our advertisers that we had approximately 80% of our schedule already picked up for next year. It allowed for more productive conversations earlier as you’re trying to build out more comprehensive partnerships,” Byrne says. “This will allow us to have ongoing, productive conversations with our clients about partnering with our programming year-round.”

Byrne adds that Fox has made “incredible investments in our sports properties as well as investments in our entertainment properties to support and grow our business going forward.”

ABC has also changed the way it develops programming. “We reached out to some huge, huge talent in the writing community to say give us the project that you’ve been dreaming about,” says Wang. “We’re still about the scale, and high quality and we just continue to refine our brand and make sure that everything we bring for consideration is again very brand-specific.”

Safety in Numbers

Leading into the upfront, buyers have been talking about having more data available to help them make smarter media plans. But rather than being a factor in negotiations, Ross expects data to be more of an analytical tool. “The planning groups at agencies as well as client in-house planners and brand managers will look at different kinds of data that may determine their mix, or where the best flighting for the launch of a new product [would be],” she says.

“We have very deep data, and we’ve probably led the charge in terms of looking beyond just age and sex as a demographic and offering data on audience segmentation,” adds Ross, who this year will oversee how sales teams from CBS and The CW share resources in research and other areas to bring value to advertisers. Under the new strategic alliance between the CW and CBS, announced last month, Rob Tuck, executive VP of sales for the CW, continues to report to CW president Mark Pedowitz, with added direction from Ross on the collaboration between the two networks. The CW is a joint venture of CBS and Time Warner.

Wang notes that the research side of the business is shifting from one huge measurement company to one with numerous sources of incremental data.

“It’s fascinating—and really hard. We’re in the process of doing all that evaluation. But we are actively engaged from a technology, hardware and infrastructure standpoint on upping our data and analytics game,” Wang says.

Measurement willing, the networks will look to expand the number of gross ratings points they have to sell by adding non-linear viewing to the mix.

“VOD is a big opportunity this year,” says Fox’s Byrne. “The addition of dynamic ad insertion, it’s a much more compelling proposition for advertisers as their creative will always be current, in flight and with fast-forward disabled.”

At CBS, “our general approach will be very similar to last year in terms of marrying our linear upfront with our digital assets,” Ross says. “We remain flexible to our clients’ needs. If an agency wanted to bring their digital dollars to the table they can do so, and we work hand in glove with our colleagues at, and”

Wang says digital is a “huge” part of its conversation with advertisers. “It’s not digital vs. TV. Everything is television or everything is digital,” she says. “You’re buying ABC. Whether you’re buying your unit inside a TV show or you’re buying impressions, from an on-demand universe. More and more clients are absolutely blurring the lines in how they’re going to market. We’ve been really responsive to that.”

Branded content will also be a big part of the upfront. “We do integrations when it really makes sense for our clients and it makes sense for the programming. I still believe we have the most innovative integration team in terms of what gets on the air at CBS,” Ross says.

NBCU has also put together groups that handle integrated marketing and a company-wide symphony marketing capability. This year the company also launched a suite of data and targeted advertising products called NBCU Plus Powered by Comcast.

“It’s analytics that no other company can do, let alone do it with such scale,” Yaccarino says. “We are organized uniquely. We have the Super Bowl. Everything’s firing on all cylinders.”