Adjusting along with the rest of the industry to COVID-19, NBCUniversal has scheduled a virtual event for advertisers on May 11, the same date it had previously planned for its annual upfront.
Dubbed a “One Industry Update,” it will be a videoconference featuring executive comments as well as a “state of the marketplace conversation” with a Q&A period. The company officially canceled its upfront in mid-March, as TV networks regrouped as soon as it became clear that the pandemic had arrived.
An NBCU spokesperson emphasized the video event is not a replacement for the upfront, adding that it is “open to all — marketers, agencies, technology providers, trade bodies, press, and more. We will be sharing the state of the marketplace, provide developments on One Platform, unveil new offerings, and more.”
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The larger ritual of ad sales had already been due for a rethink, according to participants and observers alike. It hews to a calendar-year approach, one that made sense during the three-network era when new car models arriving each fall drove decision-making about the annual TV season, but makes far less so in today’s on-demand world. Instead of a September-to-May upfront, a calendar-year upfront seems increasingly viable, especially given the currently suspended state of programming, with no sports and no production casting a pall.
Ad spending has started to disappear in recent weeks given the paucity of must-see live programming, even though ratings across the dial have surged. At the same time, millions of Americans are suddenly jobless and major industries like travel and hospitality have been decimated.
A recent study by eMarketer estimated the toll for the rest of 2020 at $12 billion, nearly one-fifth of the annual haul. WarnerMedia reported a 24% downturn in ad revenue as part of AT&T’s first-quarter earnings release this week, and that reflected just the initial weeks of pandemic shutdown. The second quarter of the year, from April to June, is likely to be even worse. Asked for his outlook on the current quarter, Michael Roth, CEO of major ad agency Interpublic, said this week it’s “not going to be pretty. … Strap on your helmet.”
While some doomsday prophecies are circulating, Interpublic managed to post solid earnings this week and its stock has posted gains as the belief takes hold in some quarters that ad spending will return. If the country’s businesses begin to reopen in May, June and beyond, their revenues can return and, in turn, marketing will continue. The future of sports — with billions of dollars in the balance — remains a major unknown.
NBCU has been delivering consistent sales results in recent years, supported by broadcast franchises like Sunday Night Football and This is Us. In 2020, not only does it have a suite of networks and digital platforms to promote to media buyers, but it also has recently launched Peacock. The streaming service, which will have both free and subscription tiers with advertising, is designed to help NBCU and Comcast take advantage of the larger shift of viewing toward streaming. It debuted April 15 on Comcast platforms and will go wider in July.
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