TV Upfronts: NBCUniversal Ad Sales Chief Talks TV's 'Measurement Crisis' (Q&A)

Linda Yaccarino
Linda Yaccarino
 Courtesy of NBC

NBC might still be in the throes of rebuilding – the network desperately needs a few more hits to sustain it when The Voice and Sunday Night Football are not on the schedule. But the broadcast network is only one of the assets in Linda Yaccarino’s portfolio. As president of NBCUniversal ad sales, Yaccarino is responsible for the inventory on two broadcast networks (NBC and Telemundo), 18 cable channels (including top-rated USA as well as Bravo, E!, MSNBC and CNBC) and more than 50 digital properties.

NBCUni CEO Steve Burke recruited Yaccarino in 2011 from Turner, where she’d spent nearly 20 years and wrung significant CPM (cost per thousand viewers) increases for what the company called “broadcast replacement” programming on TBS and TNT. She was hired as head of cable entertainment and digital sales at NBCUni, but in September, Burke handed Yaccarino oversight of the company’s entire sales portfolio with a mandate to break down long-established silos and unite the company’s sales efforts across networks and platforms.

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“There really is no media company like ours,” Yaccarino says. “I suspect that if you were able to design a media company of the future it would look a lot like this company.”

NBC’s presentation opens the busy broadcast upfront week May 13 and USA closes the festivities with its second annual upfront May 16. Last year, NBC booked $1.7 billion in upfront commitments. This time, the network is actually not in last place among the Big Four (ABC is in the ratings basement for the first 30 weeks of the season, while NBC is third behind Fox and ratings leader CBS). And some analysts expect NBC to increase its share of upfront dollars among the big four for the first time in more than ten years.

Yaccarino admits that NBC “in recent history has had some programming challenges,” but she sees momentum ahead with Voice, freshman drama Revolution, the NFL and the 2014 Winter Olympics. “We’re really optimistic about our schedule,” she says.

The married mother of two is about to become an empty nester (her son is a junior at Penn State, and in the fall her daughter heads off to the University of South Carolina). But her job will surely keep her busy. A self-described “born-and-bred New Yorker” who grew up in the Long Island town of Deer Park, an open and friendly manner belies a hard-charging negotiating style, say buyers.

Yaccarino takes a break from the “controlled chaos” of the upfront season to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the “measurement crisis” in TV, why C7 is only a “small, incremental change” and how negative headlines about the Today show have affected the sales effort – or not.

The Hollywood Reporter: Does putting broadcast, cable and digital under one executive give NBCUniversal an advantage?

Linda Yaccarino: It gives us a great opportunity to have really early development conversations with clients because it’s all in one place. They don’t have to stitch it all together themselves. [We are] in a world where no one is a must buy. We are able to have those custom conversations. If you want to reach the most affluent audience across media, if you want to reach the upscale male or the independent female, we can have those conversations.

THR: The broadcast network has had some ratings challenges. Does an asset-rich portfolio insulate NBC from those problems from a sales perspective?

Yaccarino: I find your question very fascinating. I hadn’t thought about it that way, quite frankly. Aggregating such strong assets is really the strategy of us coming together as one portfolio. We’re organized under one roof to deliver to the clients what they’ve been asking us to do. So no more silos. We are cross-platform, media agnostic. But NBC [primetime] is really at the core of the priority for the company.

THR: Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in an April 25 report that NBC for the first time since 2002 would increase its share of broadcast upfront dollars for the first time since 2002. Did you read that report?

Yaccarino: (Laughs.) I think I might have read that report. It’s really hard to predict. The market is completely based on supply and demand. It hasn’t revealed itself yet. So while we are cautiously optimist about the upfront, we do think NBC has a potential advantage in this marketplace from a variety of places. We’re very enthusiastic about our schedule. If you look at broadcast alone – ratings points have contracted to a significant degree and NBC had such momentum this year. The logical math scenario is that NBC would benefit if the market is at least as good as it was last year — if you do the math. 

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THR: Many analysts believe that digital will need to adopt an accepted (Nielsen) currency in order to take significant share from television. Do you agree?

Yaccarino: Absolutely. We have a measurement crisis on our hands. Measurement is lagging considerably behind consumer behavior and we have got to get to a point where all viewing or interaction with content is measured on any screen. And we need to accelerate the evolution to that. It’s not just a digital issue. Obviously there’s vulnerabilities in that space as well. It’s very, very frustrating.

THR: Where do you come down on the debate over C7? Do you think a preponderance of deals will be done on this metric? If not this year, when?

Yaccarino: I’m not sure; the marketplace hasn’t revealed itself yet. We are in many conversations with our clients about their needs, whether it's C3 or C7 or something completely different. Do a lot of folks believe C7 is an improvement of C3? Sure, more viewing is measured. So it’s hard to argue that. But it’s such a small incremental change and it’s really not the biggest challenge. The challenge is total measurement.

THR: Is it challenging to sell a network – Esquire – in a stalled state of rebranding?

Yaccarino: We have a very well-communicated brand positioning that’s out in the market. And we’ve seen virtually every client and advertising agency and taken them through that. It has been very well received because it will occupy a white space that does not exist today in television. To your point of challenging: Yes, but it’s just a point in time.

THR: USA is a top-rated cable entertainment network, yet it is stuck with historically lower CPMs than competitors at Turner, where you used to work. Have you been able to get those CPMs up and how important are off-net reruns of Modern Family to that effort?

Yaccarino: I believe buyers will embrace Modern Family to a terrific degree for USA. I think that we will absolutely come out of negotiations achieving fair value for USA. Any network is subject to supply and demand. The good news is USA for seven years in a row is the No. 1 cable [entertainment] network on virtually every key demographic. Adding Modern Family to the USA lineup is really going to give birth to strong, consistent 18-49 GRPs (gross ratings points) because it will skew younger than it does on ABC and younger than USA’s median age right now. And that’s what’s key for clients.

THR: But even on ABC, Modern Family does not repeat as well as some multicamera comedies like The Big Bang Theory.

Yaccarino: I think Modern Family is so unique and so watercooler that people want to see it live. We believe very strongly that it will continue to do well like several top-tier classic sitcoms have done as they go into syndication. Big Bang is a very well-done, very broad-based comedy. But when you look at the demographics of Modern Family, it’s young, it’s very affluent. Commercials that air inside Modern Family resonate more than any other sitcom on television. So the value of that audience is extremely attractive to advertisers.

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THR: Is there still an advertiser bias against reality TV?

Yaccarino: I actually believe there is no bias against reality. I think that is an old view from years ago. Reality is very attractive to many clients because it provides a more natural environment for sponsorship or product integration than scripted television. But there’s obviously a pecking order in the world of reality.

THR: There has been a loud debate about media violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings. At the same time, broadcast has been pushing boundaries after 10 p.m. in an effort to compete with gory fare on cable. Have you seen any change in advertisers’ tolerance for violent programming like NBC’s Hannibal?

Yaccarino: I think it’s always a conversation. NBCU takes very seriously our responsibility to the public, particularly having a very big broadcast network in our family of assets. So we are constantly talking about and prioritizing the balance between how much and when certain content is aired. It’s top of mind. Obviously it’s a more sensitive time than any other. Luckily we do not have a ton of that controversial content. 

THR:  Good Morning America surpassed the Today show a little over a year ago. How has Today’s fall to No. 2 impacted the show’s ad revenue picture and sales effort?

Yaccarino: We have a tremendous show in the Today show. It continues to evolve. And if we can put the sensational headlines and stories aside, we have a great news team. Our customers believe in us. And quite frankly the Today show is doing very well. And I think you’ll see continued growth in that area.

THR: Has the drumbeat of negative publicity about the show had any impact on media buyers’ perception?

Yaccarino: Absolutely not. I think it’s provided a distraction for some people but the Today show is such a well-respected brand in our portfolio and they see the continued evolution of the show and are very encouraged by what they see since (NBCU News Group chairman) Pat Fili-Krushel took over, and Alex Wallace has been running the [Today] team.

THR: I sat next to a buyer at the NBC News upfront who said that while he personally liked MSNBC and gave high marks to the sales teams’ integrated approach, it was still a tough sell for his company because of the network’s political stance. How do you navigate those attitudes?

Yaccarino: It’s something that we are very aware of. But the talent and the content is so respected in the community that we see that less and less. The ratings performance tells us that the consumer is hungry for an opinion. And the consumer is interested in respected folks – whether on-air talent or guests – sharing their thoughts and rationale on meaningful issues. I believe that MSNBC has done a phenomenal job as exemplified by its tremendous growth over the last couple of years under the direction of [MSNBC president] Phil Griffin. It is the place for all things politics and they do a tremendous job trying to find a balance. If you’re a consistent viewer you’ll see that [the reporting] is based in fact and there are credible hosts like Rachel Maddow, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough who are embraced by the advertisers.

THR: Is the vast time delay for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, having an impact on ad sales?

Yaccarino: We are well underway with our conversations with our advertisers for Sochi. We’re doing very well. The London Olympics were a spectacular success based on a strategy of combing linear and digital streaming of the games with a significant time delay. The Olympics are a cultural phenomenon. 

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com

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