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Despite Ratings Dip,Sales Chiefs Upbeat

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With ratings down again this primetime season, some are predicting a tough upfront market for broadcasters, who are facing new competition from the companies that created the NewFronts to sell digital video, as well as from cable, whose sales surpassed broadcast in last year’s upfront.

But the top sales executives at the broadcast networks would rather look at signs that point to an improving economy and a strengthening scatter market as harbingers of decent upfront numbers.

At presentations this week, the broadcasters will look to put their best foot forward, beguiling buyers with promising new shows and fresh evidence that an ad campaign without the reach and impact broadcast uniquely provides is like a day without sunshine.

Media moguls this month have been predicting a robust upfront, led by perennially sunny CBS Corp. president/CEO Leslie Moonves, who could not restrain himself from making his annual forecast that America’s Most Watched Network would garner double-digit price increases in the upfront.

That sentiment was echoed by Jo Ann Ross, president for ad sales at Moonves’ broadcast network.

“Everything’s looking up here at CBS,” Ross told B&C. “We are having back-to-back breakfasts, lunches and dinners,” with clients and buyers. “Everyone wants to sit down and have a conversation.”

Ross said the ad market seems solid right now—a good sign for the upfront. “Second-quarter scatter continues to be strong,” she said. “The demand is there. Budgets are coming in well before !ight date.”

Geri Wang, president of sales and marketing at ABC, said she is optimistic because the macroeconomic indicators are good. “The micro detail rolls up really nicely. And I like our position,” she added. “So I’m feeling very, very good about the upfront.”

Like her counterparts, Wang is encouraged by the pilots she has been screening. “The level of quality across the board for all the scripted drama and comedy [development] has been really strong,” she said. “I’m really excited we’ll be adding to our portfolio.”

Some media buyers claim Fox ad sales president Toby Byrne is in for a rough upfront, however. Fox’s ratings are off a disappointing 20% this season, and its top show, American Idol, has fallen from its once-dominant position back into the pack, making a drop in upfront sales almost inevitable. But Byrne also preferred to stay positive in talking about his inventory.

“Fox still stands alone in terms of differentiation in several ways from our competitors,” Byrne said. “In the younger half of the 18-49 demo, the 18-34 segment, we have a growing advantage versus our broadcast competitors. We have a social footprint that is second to none in television. And that speaks to both the involvement of our shows with the audience as well as how engaged our audience is in our content. So these are things that still separate us and make Fox a unique proposition.”

Byrne also points to the scatter market for signs the upfront will be OK. “Scatter pricing is healthy, and there is solid demand for our signature programs, including New Girl, The Following, American Idol and our Sunday-night lineup,” he said.

Both Sides Against the Middle

This year, Linda Yaccarino, president of sales for NBCUniversal, is in a unique spot, heading sales for troubled NBC as well as NBC’s strong roster of cable networks. For years when she worked at Turner, Yaccarino urged advertisers to buy cable.

“What I always said, which remains true, is that cable is a terrific complement to broadcast prime,” Yaccarino said. “So I think it’s actually a very logical progression that I have been lucky enough to be given this opportunity here to oversee all of the assets for NBCUniversal so we can sit here and say, ‘How do we help you look at your media plans across all our assets, broadcast, cable and digital, to meet your needs and help you sell stuff?’”

Yaccarino is upbeat about NBC. “We go into the upfront market with the wind at our backs and some really good momentum from The Voice and Revolution and Chicago Fire,” she said. “And we are really excited about what we saw in the development meetings.”

NBCU is set up to sell advertisers packages that reach consumers using both broadcast and cable. “We’re involved in several of those conversations already,” Yaccarino said. “The math tells us there is a shortage of [gross rating points] in the marketplace and that there is a need to aggregate and there is a bigger need to aggregate cross-portfolio.”

Much of the pre-upfront posturing has involved measurement, particularly with the networks talking about using Nielsen C7 ratings that count commercials viewed during seven days of DVR playback instead of the current C3 standard, which covers three days. ABC has reportedly been writing C7 business for a while. But now the broadcasters seem to be downplaying the desirability of C7.

“It’s not going to be one size !ts all. I think most of our business will be written on C3 [ratings], but there are probably a handful of clients, depending on what their inclination is, [that] look at C7,” CBS’ Ross said.

Yaccarino said NBC is open to having conversations about C7 with clients. But she adds, “I don’t think that that is at all a real solution to the measurement crisis that we have on our hands.” Yaccarino added that a “significant” amount of NBCUniversal’s audience is watching content on devices that currently are unmeasured.

“I think that’s a problem. The trend seems to indicate that viewing on those devices will continue to grow,” Yaccarino said. “I do think we have a crisis since historically, measurement has lagged behind consumer behavior. So it has become an acute need to drive toward total measurement. And that’s where we as an industry need to come together to push progress in this area. And I think Comcast NBCUniversal is uniquely positioned to push that conversation forward.”

Everything Counts, Whether Measured Or Not

As more viewers watch network shows online or on mobile devices including tablets and smartphones, the broadcasters are including some of those digital impressions in the audiences they guarantee their upfront advertisers.

Fox calls that "uidity. “Our "uidity model is broadly accepted, providing one-stop shopping here for wherever our content is distributed, on whatever platform,” Byrne said.

Clients are looking at TV, digital and other media to put together multiplatform campaigns, and broadcasters want to be part of that process.

“The whole world is cross-platform—that’s what it’s about,” Wang said. “We’ve evolved and enhanced the offering.”

The networks have beefed up their integrated marketing staffs to create innovative offerings for advertisers that are demanding plans including more than 30-second spots from their media partners. “The key to innovation is not just doing more of it, it’s about doing it well. It’s a win-win for the clients and us when we have enough lead time to really understand what their brand brief is and to actually get into the planning guts of it,” said Ross. “Whether they want the integration to start on broadcast within a show and then have arms and legs through webisodes, on or any of our other assets, whether it goes to mobile, whether it crosses divisions, our team is very involved in it. I think we have a good reputation with the bigger clients that have done that type of thing with us.”

Yaccarino said NBCU has a creative marketing team of 50 to 60 people to “amplify across the entire company the marketing activation of all our assets.” She said it’s a priority “to deliver on the marketing piece for our customers that they have been asking for in a bigger and better way for a while. We’re finally able to deliver that to them.”

In addition to primetime, the networks sell their other dayparts during the upfront.

ABC is upbeat about its late night and early morning programming.

Kimmel’s Time to Shine

While Jimmy Kimmel’s irreverent rants about the advertising sales process have been a !xture at ABC’s upfronts, this is the first year the network will be selling Kimmel as its 11:35 p.m. late-night anchor.

“We think Jimmy is on the ascendency. He is the funniest guy in show business. We couldn’t be more excited to have him be the centerpiece of our late-night strategy,” said ABC’s Wang. “We definitely expect a share shift over to Jimmy based on what he has been able to accomplish.”

Late-night will also be a big deal for NBC, where Jay Leno will be stepping down from the Tonight Show and succeeded by Jimmy Fallon. “We’re very excited about the continuation of the strength of NBC in this daypart as the No. 1 for so many years,” Yaccarino said. NBCU’s late-night dominance goes beyond NBC, she adds. “When you look at that and you add Andy Cohen [whose show is on Bravo] and you add Chelsea Handler [on E!] and when you look across [our] late-night daypart, you see a lot of great opportunity from an audience perspective and from a marketing sponsorship perspective.”

ABC’s Wang feels the same way about Good Morning America. GMA has overtaken NBC’s Today as the ratings leader among breakfast news shows, and Wang anticipates a similar shift in ad dollars in the upfront. “We’re also expecting the same thing from GMA,” she said.

The nets will also be selling sports to advertisers. “The sports marketplace is very healthy. I think there’s likely going to be volume growth,” said Fox’s Byrne. “Naturally, it’s always exciting when [your network has] the Super Bowl, and it being in New York [next February] is fantastic. Also, the launching of Fox Sports 1 is an incredibly exciting endeavor. We think there’s an appetite in the marketplace for additional players in the space.”

NBC Sports will be offering Sunday Night Football, the top-rated primetime program, and the 2014 Winter Olympics from Socci, Russia. “We have asset after asset, league after league, sport after sport. It’s such a great portfolio to have the opportunity to represent,” Yaccarino said.

“Do the customers we talk to who we have a lot of long-standing relationships with want to look at NBCUniversal as a whole portfolio? The answer is, of course,” Yaccarino added. “And when it makes sense and we can meet each others’ needs, the answer is, of course we have those conversations. But it’s all about delivering what the customer needs, and that’s what we’re focusing on right now.”

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