As the television business is scrambled by COVID-19, one sales chief thinks it may be a good time to finally upend the May upfronts and move to a year-round model. Most big brands do that already – the historic May upfront/September TV season had been linked to the launch of new car models.
Deadline spoke with Peter Olsen, EVP Ad Sales at A+E Networks, on the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and how his company is communicating with advertisers in lieu of a traditional upfront this year. A+E channels from A&E to Lifetime to History, have had production halted on some of their series such as American Pickers. However the company has new episodes at the ready to fill in the gaps until production returns and is still currently airing many premieres of current shows. For instance, Dan Abrams-hosted Live PD returns from hiatus Friday and Saturday with Live PD: Special Edition – a shorter show and a different format with first-hand accounts of the COVID-19 crisis through interviews, reporting outside hospitals, testimonials from law enforcement and government officials and community interactions.
DEADLINE: Your upfront live presentation was scheduled for March 25 and was canceled along with the rest. What are you doing instead?
OLSEN: When we made the decision to not hold the physical event, we started to discuss what could we do. At first, the plans were a little more complicated. We would go into agencies and host things and have it be interactive. Now, it’s simplified itself to a 30-minute tape. We do have the ability to send along a little more of a customized slide or proposal inside an app we used so it’s somewhat customized depending on the client and their situation. We’re sending it to hundreds of clients and agency partners.
It’s as simple as a link someone watches. There is some interactivity of response but the interactivity part is more muted than the original plan. We realize peoples’ lives are upended. Paul Buccieri, group president of A+E Networks, speaks. There’s a reel. There are a number of our talent on the tape making programming announcements. It’s like a very condensed version of what would have been live onstage. What would have been a single night or one week is now a three-or four-week process. We started sending the videos out this week. It hasn’t been determined when the taped presentations will be make public.
DEADLINE: What’s in A+E’s presentation?
OLSEN: We want to stress the brands in a clear, direct way. About where things are at. A&E is really focused on front-row experiences, like Live PD, which is very popular. At Lifetime, there’s a heavier shift to movies, and at History more of a shift to documentary storytelling. Thankfully, we don’t have sports or news.
We’ll also stress corporate social responsibility. Many brands are launching PSAs and we are highlighting the history we have with regards to social responsibility. A blend of content and action that reaches 90 million homes. In some cases we are placing them in lieu of where ads would have run. It’s a service for viewers and keeps brands in front of viewers in a good way.
DEADLINE: What are you seeing as the impact of the coronavirus on your advertisers?
OLSEN: What we are realizing is, depending on the client, we are talking to some in acutely impacted categories, but others are in business-as-usual mode, having discussions, going forward, looking at plans.
Clearly, there is a lot of distress in the economy, certain categories are very much trying to get off the air in the short term. They are looking to produce more appropriate creative messaging. The most acutely affected categories are retail, restaurants, movie studios and travel.
There are also longer-term concerns about supply chains being affected and the overall economy. The issues – everyone being forced to stay home, locations temporarily closing, and supply chains, plus the overall economy – are different by category. Some brands actually got caught short as demand surged and also asked to pull ads until they get caught back up on the inventory.
There will be an economic hit for everyone and the longer it goes on, the harder it is. It’s an economic reality. The good news is that we were on very solid economic ground before the COVID crisis hit and there is no reason to believe that we won’t bounce back. It will just take time. The other good news is that television is seen as the most effective way to get messaging out to consumers.
At our networks, some shows are moving up some are moving back. I don’t believe it’s uniform across the board. Some shows are being produced, some others are being shut down.
DEADLINE: How do you think the current disruption might, or should, impact the upfronts in years to come?
OLSEN: This is just an opinion. The odds of the typical upfront process where marketers get their budgets in around May 1st seems a really challenging thing to do. Maybe it’s prudent to put a pause on. Most companies are calendar fiscals, so November-to-December negotiations are a lot more aligned with client plans.
A calendar-year upfront aligns better with the companies. If you think about it, it could be a time to shift the calendar of the industry to what makes more sense long-term. The upfront was around new auto models coming out, goes back 70 years. Think about that. Now cars are coming out all year round. Not a great reason for fall launch.
There’s no formal dialogue going on about the upfront. Every year, there is the traditional upfronts. Clients spend money and later go to scatter. Some are done early and more are done later. It isn’t completely clean – it’s a challenge to pull it off even in normal times.