TV’s Tough Upfront: More Video Rivals Will Fight For Fewer Ad Dollars
Plenty of money will be spent on TV ads during this year’s “upfront” — but probably not enough to fuel the economics of all the nation’s big media conglomerates.
TV executives and media buyers usually can’t agree on much at this time of year, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their advertising inventory in advance of their next cycle of programming. Buyers and CMOs insist TV advertising prices are too high, while TV sales honchos demand a premium for ads that are seen by more people all at once than commercials accompanying a random binge-watch or a YouTube influencer’s streamcast. In 2023, however, both types of hagglers are in agreement: Madison Avenue will greet the industry’s annual ad-sales session not with open wallets, but with tighter purse-strings.
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“Yes, it’s definitely a slower marketplace than it has been in years,” says Rita Ferro, president of Disney’s advertising sales business.
One buyer says many of the clients tied to his agency have yet to register budgets for the yearly ad bazaar. In other years, this buyer says, a ledger would already be filled with hard numbers. “It has been very difficult to get commitments from clients, and there is a lot of nervousness and uncertainty,” the executive says. This buyer projects cable will see the biggest declines, followed by broadcast TV, with even digital possibly ceding some ground. “Primetime is getting destroyed,” says the buyer, because it costs the most and advertisers will want to use the dollars they put there to pay for digital.
Others believe continued fears of a recession and the ongoing Hollywood writers strike have cast more fog on a process that already requires a lot of guesswork about the health of the economy in months to come. In the upfront, advertisers typically secure a discount in exchange for buying up ad time ahead of schedule, rather than purchasing what is known as “scatter,” or ad inventory bought much closer to the time the commercials air.
“The sentiment is that it will be more of a buyer’s market than a seller’s market, which is an indication the money will be down,” says Carrie Drinkwater. chief investment officer of MediaHub, a media-buying unit of Interpublic Group. Evidence is already readily available: Advertising revenue slumped 11% at Paramount Global in the first quarter, and 15% at Warner Bros. Discovery. Advertisers have also been cutting back on money they had earmarked for TV ad time in last year’s upfront, says one buying executive, which they get the option to do every quarter. The amount being trimmed by some clients, says this executive, has increased at each opportunity.
Buyers and sellers both expect spending by marketers of travel and entertainment to be robust, but note financial-services advertisers, roiled by the stock market and banking woes, are pulling back, as is the technology sector. There are varying outlooks for key ad categories, including the nation’s consumer-products , pharmaceutical advertisers and auto giants.
The five English-language broadcast TV networks last year secured $9.9 billion in primetime sales commitments, up 6.4% from the previous upfront, according to Media Dynamics Inc., while cable networks sold $10.2 billion, a 5.2% increase. In total, the “linear TV” upfront was up 5.8%, to $20.1 billion, according to the consultancy.
Ebbs in ad flows come as more digital players are vying directly with traditional TV companies. Amazon has “Thursday Night Football” under its aegis, and Roku is ready to weave advertisers into its central hub screen, where subscribers determine what to stream for the next hour or so. YouTube may not offer the premium series of an HBO, but in the eyes of the younger viewers who use the service, the shows and snippets are just as important. Netflix is entering the upfront for the first time with an ad-supported tier that buyers say is pricey and offers fewer impressions than rivals, but could be a key outlet in years to come.
With so much more competition, buyers suggest, not all media companies will get the dollars they have come to expect. Instead, look for Disney, Amazon, NBCU, Paramount Global, Fox, Warner Bros. Discovery and many others to battle for money that might once have been earmarked for someone else. Buyers expect the networks to make cuts in rates if advertisers will give them a greater volume of commitments than last year. “For us, this is a share marketplace,” says Ferro.
There have already been some shambolic missteps. Netflix has scrapped a live upfront in favor of a live-streamed one, ostensibly out of fear of writers’ protests at an event that had been scheduled for the company’s own Paris Theater in New York City.. At NBCUniversal, the executive many advertisers expected to oversee upfront outreach left the company unexpectedly. Linda Yaccarino, NBCU’s now-former ad-sales chairman, was named CEO of Twitter on Friday.
NBC, however, believes advertisers can’t hold back too much. “When we look ahead to the fourth quarter alone, we expect 17 auto launches. 16 studio releases and 10 pharmaceutical releases,” says Mark Marshall, who was named interim chairman of NBCUniversal’s ad-sales unit Friday. “We have not really had this concentration of demand in this short a period of time like we are going to have in the fourth quarter.”
To get the dollars, the networks are going to highlight the things they know will work: sports and streaming. .
With big audiences harder to reach through the scripted programs that make up the bulk of TV’s primetime grid, more advertisers who in the past thought of sports as tilted heavily towards men have begun to give it a new look, says Marianne Gambelli, president of advertising sales, marketing and brand partnerships at Fox, including fashion companies and advertisers looking to reach families. “As money has shifted, it has become more valuable,” she says.
Streaming, meanwhile, is opening new frontiers for advertisers. Warner Bros. Discovery has already begun to secure deals that let marketers run ads ahead of the streaming versions of big HBO series like “Succession,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” which have been unavailable to Madison Avenue for years. One advertiser already using the concept is Mercedes Benz, says Jon Steinlauf, chief U.S. advertising sales officer for Warner Bros. Discovery. The idea, the executive says, is to “use the original series as the focal point to help drive more demand” for HBO Max, which will soon be revamped into a broader service incorporating more of the company’s programming. Disney announced last week that it would make Hulu and Disney+ available on the same app, and Ferro, the sales executive, says the company is “definitely engaged with key partners.”
Other media companies are likely to use other points of distinction. Spanish-language broadcaster TelevisaUnivision saw ad revenue rise 2% in the first quarter, and is likely to tell advertisers that they can reach more of the young consumers they crave by investing more heavily in reaching Latino audiences. Fox Corp., more focused on live news and sports since selling the bulk of its cable and studio assets to Disney in 2019, will position itself as better prepared to operate during the writers strike.
No matter how much the media companies scramble, little of it will shake the conviction that they will have to fight harder to get whatever dollars may be available, :The upfront marketplace will certain be active make no mistake about it, says David Sederbaum, executive vice president and head of video investment at Dentsu Media US. “I just believe it will be more muted than it has in years past.”
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