Moments after the main drama unfolded in a Delaware courtroom, CBS execs shrugged off controversy, turning out another annual Carnegie Hall upfront emphasizing broadcast TV’s traditional power.
“Our legacy, our enduring success as broadcasters all comes down to having a great and compelling story to share with all of you,” said CBS chief Les Moonves. “That’s what this week is all about. Each network has their story to tell. … I personally consider CBS’s to be the greatest story ever told.”
The longtime chairman and CEO took the stage to roars from the crowd of ad buyers and a prolonged standing ovation. He made glancing reference to the National Amusements and Viacom saga, but mostly used his limited stage time to hit many of the notes he has on recent quarterly earnings calls and in other public comments. Knowing the larger context, though, many in the audience detected a valedictory tone in the remarks.
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“This is the true story of survival of this crazy media business we love: broadcasting. The big tent,” Moonves said. “A medium where premium content brings the country and now, in many ways, the whole world together. Viewers forming communities around their favorite shows and broadcasters connecting with advertisers to reach those tens of millions of viewers night after night.” Broadcast TV over the decades has responded successfully to “every supposed threat,” from VCRs to DVRs to smartphones, he maintained.
CBS introduced a new ad-sales tool called CBS DNA, short for “data and analytics,” but did not dwell on how it will be implemented. On balance, the Carnegie Hall show was by far the lightest of any of the broadcast or major cable upfronts this week in terms of ad-sales talk or bar charts. A spoof meta-video early in the presentation starring John Malkovich and Moonves featured Malkovich repeatedly jeering, in his Malkovich-ian way, at all of the ad-sales jargon in the script for an upfronts video he was expected to narrate. “What the f—k is addressable TV?!” he demanded. Even that video, though, like the network’s Murphy Brown and Magnum P.I., was a reboot, reprising the setting and concept of a promo that aired before the CBS broadcast of the AFC Championship Game last January.
The easy-on-the-ad-talk sentiment continued as the show unfolded. Late-night host James Corden joked that discussion of metrics of the long-term success of CBS was too “boring.” The overall message was: Don’t believe the hype. Broadcast television is alive and well and still sells soap.
“Unlike other networks, we do not believe that advertising is ruining the television business,” said Jo Ann Ross, who heads ad sales for CBS. The line drew a hearty ovation from the ad buyers in the audience.
Along with broadcast TV, there were numerous shout-outs to direct-to-consumer services, especially CBS All Access, which launched in 2015. In the most recent quarterly earnings report earlier this month, CBS said All Access and Showtime are ahead of projections to reach a combined 8 million subscribers by 2020.
“Long before OTT was ‘a thing,’ CBS saw the potential of streaming,” Ross said.
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