NBCU’s Linda Yaccarino Says Some NFL Advertisers Are Threatening to Pull Out Over Protest Coverage

She’s also holding an industry summit to address measurement and monetization issues

"I do think it has impacted the ratings" this season, said Linda Yaccarino of the NFL national anthem protests.
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While advertisers are sticking by the NFL games this season, they have made it clear to at least one network that they might pull out if coverage of national anthem protests continues.

Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships for NBCUniversal, said that some advertisers are unhappy about the controversy over protests, which has “impacted” NFL ratings this year. She spoke Friday afternoon in New York during a fireside chat, moderated by Adweek, between her and Oath CEO Tim Armstrong that was part of the Verizon Media Tech Program with digital media agency R/GA.

During the conversation with Armstrong, Yaccarino was asked about Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, who blamed his company’s disappointing quarterly earnings on the NFL’s failure to curtail national anthem protests, as well as the response from CBS Corp. CEO and chairman Leslie Moonves, who noted on his own earnings call that there was no hesitation on the part of any of his network’s NFL advertisers. “I don’t know of one sponsor that has pulled out of any spot that they had,” said Moonves. “I don’t think it’s affecting advertising or their desire one iota.”

Yaccarino echoed Moonves’ comments, and said that none of NBCUniversal’s NFL advertisers have pulled out of NBC’s Sunday Night Football or Thursday Night Football games. However, a “list of advertisers have made themselves very clear: if you continue covering the political coverage of the issue, we will not be part of the NFL,” she said. “Because think about it: they have half the country that is cheering about that, and they have half the country that is emailing them, saying, don’t do that. So that’s a real thing.”

She noted that prior to the controversy, which started last season when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the national anthem, “most” NFL games didn’t broadcast the anthem, aside from big games like the Super Bowl. “The story has morphed dramatically, from social injustice to patriotism,” said Yaccarino. “While I don’t think there’s any way you could ever really prove it, I do think it has impacted the ratings.”

NFL ratings were down 5 percent in the first month of the season (in contrast, the broadcast networks are down double-digits overall in prime time), but the bottom line for the networks with football rights continues to grow, at least for now. Ad spend on NFL games in September increased 2 percent from the year prior, according to Standard Media Index.

NBC is airing Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, and has sold “all but a handful of units,” with some 30-second spots going for “north of $5 million,” NBC Sports Group evp Dan Lovinger told reporters last week. He anticipates that the Super Bowl will bring in $350 million from in-game advertising, in addition to pregame and postgame ad revenue.

Two weeks ago, 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch said that “overproliferation” of NFL games, particularly on Thursdays, was to blame for declining football ratings, and not politics or national anthem protests.

Adweek reached out to other networks with NFL rights to ask whether their advertisers have also complained about coverage of the protests. CBS had no comment beyond Moonves’ earning call remarks, while Fox and ESPN also declined to comment.

‘A Really Big Disruption’

The NBCUniversal ad sales chief also talked about the need to shake up the industry’s legacy approach to measurement and monetization, ahead of the news that, according to a source, her company is bringing together agencies, brands, networks, digital players, measurement companies and technology companies on Nov. 28 to do just that.

“If we don’t bust out beyond the current model as it exists, to be tied to a legacy currency, that measures what a particular show at a particular time might have done for an age and gender split only, and you get your number three weeks later and ‘thank you,’ that we have to challenge,” said Yaccarino.

“But what I also think is going to really impact this in the next three years is an absolute, maybe legislated, discipline that needs to come to the digital space,” she continued. “If you’ve been following the news out of the testimony in Washington, whether it’s influence on election, whether it is a discipline when it comes to measurement, or a damn basic respect for the consumer, and put the right ad with the right content where it was intended, and you have a consequence if you don’t behave in that way … I think we’re at a really important inflection point in the market where there’s enough friction that that’s going to go.”

One solution, Yaccarino said—alluding to NBCUniversal’s meeting among industry heavyweights—is if companies like NBCUniversal and Oath “came together and said, ‘Dammit, we’re not going to take it anymore. We act with discipline, we act with integrity, and we have the premium content to distribute widely, and this is the way we’re doing it,’ all of that stuff is going to stop, and has to stop.’ Otherwise, we can’t bring the industry forward, because the basis of everything is mistrust in the relationship,” she said.

“I think you’re going to see a really big disruption in that area, and a coming of age,” said Yaccarino, who will be leading the charge on Nov. 28.

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