The sprawling ViacomCBS network portfolio will have a two-day virtual upfront for advertisers on May 18 and May 19, shifting to the week after the traditional CBS upfront had been scheduled before COVID-19 struck.
Viacom’s brands across its Entertainment & Youth and Kids & Family units, plus BET and Pluto TV, will present on May 18. CBS, including streaming service CBS All Access, will have its turn on May 19 and plans to unveil “the fall programming lineup” for the broadcast network, though the grid has been a work in progress given the pandemic’s disruptions.
“I planned to be – and frankly, I’d rather be – writing to you this time of year to invite you to one of our intimate upfront dinners or our annual celebration at Carnegie Hall,” ViacomCBS sales chief Jo Ann Ross wrote in a note to advertisers. “Clearly, the current climate is different, but as they say at Carnegie, the show must go on!”
Instead of splashy live events, ViacomCBS now plans “a series of short virtual presentations,” Ross added.
The entire spring calendar, usually teeming with dozens of pitch events as linear and digital content purveyors try to entice buyers, has been thrown into uncertainty. There is the near-term safety issue of trying to gather together large groups over shrimp cocktail and the longer-term economic uncertainty, which is already seeing a pullback across every ad category. NBCUniversal plans an “update” event on May 11 designed to brief media buyers and the press about the state of its ad-supported efforts. Disney and Fox have not indicated any plans for upfront substitutes but sellers have all ramped-up one-on-one contact with buyers. There is broad speculation that the conventional, September-to-May upfront cycle will give way to a more incremental one or a calendar-year approach.
The CBS upfront, held for years at Carnegie Hall and often featuring waggish feats of showmanship by Ross, has long been a ritual commingling of those working TV and advertising. Given the long run of CBS as the No. 1 broadcast network, the event was closely tracked and also has hosted its share of drama. At the May 2018 edition, former CEO Les Moonves sought to ignore the welter of mounting internal pressure from the investigations into his conduct. In a surprise appearance, he was greeted with a standing ovation by ad buyers and declared victory in a legal fight with Shari Redstone, his most high-profile bow before being ousted from the company.
Given the prominence of the CBS upfront, the network proved to be a rarity during the recent weeks of COVID-19 reshuffling, preserving May 13 (the original date for the in-person event) as the virtual one.
Viacom has never grouped together its upfronts, instead spreading them across the calendar, and often hosting splashy affairs for MTV and Nickelodeon. In recent years, as advertising patterns have shifted, Viacom and other cable programmers held fewer upfront events.
Worth noting as elements of both days are streaming outlets Pluto TV (May 18) and CBS All Access (May 19). While Viacom has previously taken part in the NewFronts showcase for digital platforms, it has not had a discrete event for Pluto, which it bought in 2019. CBS has increasingly been pushing All Access, giving it dedicated real estate in venues like TCA, but the service never tended to get much stage time at Carnegie Hall despite having launched in 2015. Combined with Showtime, CBS All Access is on pace to reach 16 million subscribers by the end of 2020, ViacomCBS has said.
Here is the full letter to clients from Ross:
I hope this note finds you, your families and your teams well. We know that several of our friends in the industry have felt the impact of Covid-19 both professionally and personally and we are here to support you however we can.
I planned to be – and frankly, I’d rather be – writing to you this time of year to invite you to one of our intimate upfront dinners or our annual celebration at Carnegie Hall. Clearly, the current climate is different, but as they say at Carnegie, the show must go on!
Since we know most of you continue to work remotely and we want to be mindful of your time, the “ViacomCBS Upfront @Home” will be a series of short virtual presentations over the course of two days.
On Monday, May 18, we will present many of the combined assets and leading solutions from ViacomCBS that are now at your disposal, in addition to a first look at compelling content opportunities across our Entertainment & Youth and Kids & Family brands, BET, Pluto TV and our robust digital offerings.
On Tuesday, May 19, we will unveil the fall programming lineup of the CBS Television Network – America’s Most-Watched Network for 12 years in a row – and original programming from CBS All Access, our premium subscription video-on-demand platform. We’ll also preview exciting opportunities from CBS Sports, including Super Bowl LV, and highlight the powerful and important work being done by our colleagues at CBS News.
Our newly integrated team across ViacomCBS has come together even more quickly than I could have expected despite the pressure of extenuating circumstances. This incredible progress gives me optimism for the days ahead. We have already achieved what we hoped to accomplish in bringing our sales organizations together – one team with a unified mission to provide you with the most powerful, seamless advertising solutions in the industry.
We are simply stronger together. More premium programming and culture-defining franchises spanning every content category… distributed across more complementary platforms…with more creative and sophisticated capabilities and more digital inventory… to help you connect to all of your consumers with our massive reach across every audience.
And most importantly, we’re here for you whenever you’re ready. The ViacomCBS Ad Sales team will collaborate with you on your timeline to adapt your strategies, engage your consumers on the platforms they love most, amplify your messages and achieve your business goals.
As I’ve said to many of you over these past weeks and months, thank you for your enduring partnership during this unprecedented time. We’re proud of the important role we play together, and we look forward to sharing our valuable offerings with you soon.
Stay tuned for an update next week with details on how and when to tune in to our ViacomCBS upfront website to join the virtual presentations.
Until then, wishing you safety and good health.
Jill Goldsmith contributed to this report.