Like its big-media peers, ViacomCBS is coping with myriad questions about the road to recovery through COVID-19, but its message to advertisers this week included a particularly bullish statement from CBS Sports.
“The absence of sports is something we certainly miss dearly,” James Brown, host of studio show The NFL Today, presiding over a video segment in Tuesday’s CBS-centric portion of the company’s online upfront. “That’s why we’re pleased to welcome you back to live programming on CBS Sports.”
Production across the board has been almost completely frozen by the pandemic, throwing major wrenches into broadcast schedules and jeopardizing billions in ad revenue. Even before the drought could be felt in the scripted or unscripted lineups, sports became an immediate wasteland. National advertising for all broadcast networks declined 19% in March compared with the same period in 2019, according to the Standard Media Index. CBS saw its ad revenue plunge 48% due to the cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Despite the demise of March Madness and the postponement of April’s Masters golf tournament to November, CBS is trying to put the best face on uncertainty given its sizable investment in multi-year rights packages. Its upfront pitches on Monday and Tuesday touted the return of college and NFL football despite little information from college or pro officials about how games will be played and a drumbeat of skeptical comments from local and state officials.
To its great relief, CBS is not directly connected to the fraught conversations among owners, players and network rights-holders about how NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball will return to action. Its most lucrative properties arrive later in the year: SEC college football and the NFL.
In a recent interview with Deadline, ViacomCBS sales chief Jo Ann Ross said the company is proceeding as though the NFL is playing its season as scheduled, including Super Bowl LV. The league itself has likewise gone about its business as usual, its main concession to the pandemic being Commissioner Roger Goodell hosting the NFL Draft from his basement. It even staged a three-hour primetime schedule reveal this month on NFL Network despite unanswered questions about logistics, public safety and economics.
“Sports have always provided a sense of comfort,” Brown said in the video. At CBS, he added, “We’re proud of our past, but today it’s time to look forward. Because in these challenging times, I think we have a much deeper appreciation for many things.”
A clip reel showcased the key CBS Sports properties as the Foo Fighters song “Times Like These” played (“At times like these / We learn to live again.”) The opening montage was of the Professional Golf Association, a nod to the return next month of weekend PGA coverage. CBS will broadcast the first of 11 straight PGA Tour weekend events. Based on ratings last weekend for German soccer on FS1, NASCAR on Fox and a non-PGA golf event on NBC, any live sport is likely to unlock ample pent-up demand from both viewers and advertisers.
“This is our season,” Brown said. “CBS Sports is ready to prove it.” Brown’s comments, which began with a direct address to media buyers, expressing hope for their well-being during the pandemic, followed a much breezier opening act from booth tandem Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. Before they were “Zoom-bombed” by late-night host James Corden, the pair rattled off NFL matchups they were looking forward to, including the planned broadcast of a playoff game in January on Nickelodeon. Barely a mention was made of the murky climate or the aching void for sports fans during this endless spring.
Brown’s segment closed with the suggestion that upcoming telecasts, if anything, could be even more welcome to advertisers given the new wrinkles planned. “Like all of you at home, we’ve utilized patience and preparation,” he said. “We’ve discovered new ways to innovate to reconnect our audience with these great events, including the biggest event in America, Super Bowl LV this February.”
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