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Virtual Show Must Go on for ViacomCBS Upfront

It won’t be Carnegie Hall, but ViacomCBS’s virtual upfront presentations on May 18 and 19 will be entertaining, promises Jo Ann Ross, the media company’s president and chief advertising revenue officer.

“First and foremost, we believe it is our job to entertain and show the content that will resonate with different clients that have different audiences that they want to reach,” Ross said.

ViacomCBS president and chief ad revenue officer Jo Ann Ross (l.) at the 2019 CBS upfront with NFL on CBS announcers Jim Nantz, Tracy Wolfson and Tony Romo. 

ViacomCBS president and chief ad revenue officer Jo Ann Ross (l.) at the 2019 CBS upfront with NFL on CBS announcers Jim Nantz, Tracy Wolfson and Tony Romo. 

The upfront will also present a unified front for Viacom and CBS, which merged at the end of last year. The coronavirus crisis wiped out both CBS’s annual theatrical presentation as well as the smaller intimate dinners with media buyers that Viacom held, hosted by CEO Bob Bakish.

“The upfront that we’ve come up with is a brilliant, I don’t want to say replacement, I’ll say a brilliant turn from what we were doing as separate companies,” Ross said.

The event will cover the unveiling of CBS’s primetime schedule, show off Viacom’s cable networks and display the combined company’s streaming assets, including CBS All Access and Pluto TV.

The presentation will juxtapose talent from both companies, and of course Ross herself will show her team spirit by dressing up in an outrageous outfit or as a character in one of the network’s shows. “I am not a shrinking violet,” she explained. “I will not let a pandemic hold me back.”

Upfront On Demand

The presentation will be offered on-
demand — not live-streamed — and the websites will enable clients to take deeper dives into topics including the company’s Vantage ad targeting system and other advanced marketing services.

CBS will also tout its upcoming Super Bowl LV. “If the country is open and things return to somewhat normal, [companies that haven’t been advertising] are going to want to speak with a loud voice and where are they going to go?” Ross said. “They’re going to go to the No. 1 vehicle in all of advertising, which is the Super Bowl.”

This will be CBS’s second Super Bowl in three years. It swapped Super Bowls with NBC to avoid selling against NBC’s Tokyo Summer Olympics. The pandemic postponed the Olympics until 2021, so CBS wound up selling its Super Bowl against the Olympics anyway.

Fun and games aside, this is a tough year for upfronts. On top of the absence of live presentations and the boozy parties that follow, COVID-19 has pulled some advertisers off the air and has others cutting or postponing spending. A survey of clients by Advertiser Perceptions found clients expected to spend 33% less in this year’s upfront, although some of that money might return to the networks in the scatter market.

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Like the top salesperson she is, Ross was sanguine about the upfront. “I think that the cadence will be a little different, but we are optimistic that people are going to come to the table when they’re ready and we’re ready to do business,” she said. “As we like to say, we’re open for business.”

Ross said she didn’t think clients wanted to “reinvent the wheel,” but that ViacomCBS had combined the companies’ sales forces making it simpler to access all of its assets.

Advertisers can get a combination of broadcast, cable and interactive ads in one buy, if that’s how they want to transact. They can also buy a combination of broad reach media based on traditional age/sex demographics, as well as data-targeted audience buys.

CBS inventory will be available for the first time using Vantage. While CBS had targeting tools, “Vantage is a home run,” Ross said. “It’s more sophisticated probably than what we had as a standalone with CBS.”

With more clients looking for assurance that their advertising will generate sales, CBS is willing to make guarantees based on results Ross said.

Cancellation Concerns

Meanwhile, ViacomCBS and other media companies are waiting to see how much of last year’s upfront buys clients will use their contractual options to cancel. Reports said that some major advertisers were looking to cancel 50% of their third-quarter reservations, the maximum allowed, which would add up to billions of dollars.

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Like the other programmers, ViacomCBS has extended the deadline on options to later in the month to see if advertisers can figure out ways to revamp their ad plans rather than simply cancel last year’s upfront buys.

“They have the right to option,” Ross said. “There’s not much more you can say about it. We’re working with them. We gave them flexibility and gave them a longer runway to make decisions. I think we did a really good job estimating [how much advertising clients will cancel] but probably a week from today, we’ll know more.”