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It wasn’t all that long ago that the finale of every upfront presentation was the reveal of the network primetime schedule. What show would get the coveted post-Friends time slot on NBC? Would CBS create a new night of drama series?
Those schedule reveals aren’t gone quite yet, but just as the pandemic scrambled the TV development process and forced the ad sales process to move to Zoom, this year’s upfronts de-emphasized broadcast primetime while building up streaming. Or, as WarnerMedia’s head of ad sales JP Colaco said during the upfront: “We believe IP is the new primetime.” The pitch: Yes, broadcast TV is on the decline, but streaming makes up for it. NBCUniversal touted Peacock, Fox pitched Tubi, WarnerMedia debuted HBO Max With Ads, ViacomCBS highlighted Paramount+ and Pluto, Discovery brought Discovery+, and Disney featured Hulu.
“This is the year that people are looking for that incremental reach that digital can provide, a year in which it isn’t a ‘nice-to-have’ with digital, but a must-have with the linear ratings declining this past year,” ViacomCBS president and chief ad sales revenue officer Jo Ann Ross tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m not putting linear to bed — linear still has the broadest reach in terms of what we have it offer in broadcast and cable, but when we sit with clients and show them what the incremental reach can be when we shift some of that linear spending to digital, it makes for a great story.”
It helps that the digital platforms offer more advanced ad opportunities than linear, with more precise targeting and interactive and less intrusive creative. Executives at NBCU and WarnerMedia said that Peacock and HBO Max with Ads will have the lightest ad load among streamers on the market (Peacock is committed to “no more than 5 minutes of ads” per hour, while HBO Max says it will top out at 4 minutes per hour), and all the companies touted their proprietary data and targeting capabilities, and options like home screen takeovers and “pause” ads that appear when a viewer pauses a show.
Meanwhile, Disney has leaned into its first-mover advantage. Not from Disney+, which doesn’t include ads for now, but rather from Hulu. “We’ve become the leader in streaming TV advertising, reaching more households than all other AVOD [ad-supported] connected TV services combined,” said Disney’s president of ad sales and partnerships, Rita Ferro, during the company’s virtual presentation.
It was, to a certain extent, the Netflix effect. Even though streaming’s 800-pound gorilla doesn’t run traditional ads (there are some product integrations), the legacy TV networks leaned into the idea that they aren’t in the broadcast business so much as they are in the digital business, competing with giants like Google, Netflix and Amazon. So when NBCU chairman of global advertising partnerships Linda Yaccarino explained “our company’s vision” at its upfront, the pitch wasn’t a new comedy block on Thursdays; it was “the metrics and mechanics that set us apart from every other media company, and the magic that makes us a new kind of tech company.”
This story appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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