TV Upfronts

What to Expect From Disney's Upfront, According to Ad Sales Boss Rita Ferro

Ferro touts 'even better' results for Disney+Hulu merger and clarifies confusion over combined sports streamer

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Disney is welcoming marketers back to the wonderful world of upfronts, and global advertising president Rita Ferro can’t wait to get started.

Without Hollywood strikes keeping talent away this year, Ferro noted that Disney is “way ahead” in terms of planning, talent commitments and what the company will showcase at its May 14 upfront event at the North Javits Center.

Among the highlights, Disney will tout its live tentpoles, sports programming and streaming platforms, including its combined Disney+ and Hulu integration.

Days into the beta version of the Disney+ and Hulu merger late last year, Ferro told ADWEEK that the company was seeing “better than expected metrics” for advertisers across the board. Now, since the full Disney and Hulu integration debuted in March, Ferro said the results are “even better,” with the company seeing “continued adoption and engagement” for bundle subscribers.

“They’re spending more time with the content and watching more hours of content,” Ferro said. “That will allow us to have more robust opportunities from an advertiser and a brand perspective to really take advantage of how we can target better across audiences, make sure that we’re giving the right advertising formats and ad units across both platforms, and continue to drive reach and engagement.”

In a Tuesday earnings call, the company teased how that engagement will increase further thanks to an ESPN tile coming to Disney+ later this year ahead of ESPN’s standalone streamer launching in 2025. Additionally, the company’s Disney+ ad tier now reaches 22.5 million subscribers.

Ahead of Disney’s upfront event, Ferro spoke with ADWEEK about the offerings to marketers, bringing Jimmy Kimmel back for another in-person upfront and also clarified some confusion over the new joint sports streamer from ESPN, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery.

ADWEEK: Last year’s upfront had Hollywood strikes keeping talent away and many companies making last-minute changes. What are you looking forward to from this presentation without those added hurdles?

Rita Ferro: It’s nice to have a plan and know that it’s going to be able to be executed with everything that you want to be there. Last year, until the day of, as we were heading onto the stage, things were changing in real time. I thought we did an extraordinary job given that you didn’t really feel that in the show, given the breadth of our show and the size of our portfolio.

It was a little more stressful last year than this year for that reason. And the advertising marketplace was in a different place. Twelve months later, the marketplace, while not back to its full potential, is definitely in a much better place.

What can we expect from the upcoming event at the North Javits Center?

It’ll be the best of storytelling around sports, streaming and our linear entertainment platforms, with one of the biggest lineups of talent that you will see on any stage that week. We’ve been in a couple of venues now doing this upfront. This is the best venue to do it in. It exceeds our full audience of 3,500 people.

We have the afterparty right in the same venue regardless of weather. What you’re gonna see in the afterparty is a lot of thematically relevant, fun things, surprise and delight moments around food, entertainment and experiences that are going to be a little bit different than what you saw last year. We’re in a better place from being able to get talent, but it’s also about making connections around the company and making connections with audiences, our brands and our franchises.

This year, you have Jimmy Kimmel back. In addition to Kimmel having to sit out last year, he had to do his part remotely the year before because he tested positive for Covid-19. What does it mean to have him, as well as other talent, back this year in person?

Jimmy is a tentpole in our show, and he’s always one of the biggest moments that customers wait for. I always brace myself because I tend to make it into that roast every year. You’ve got to have thick skin when it comes to Jimmy. But in all seriousness, he is one of the main draws of our upfront, continues to be that, and we’re thrilled to have him this year again.

But it’s not only Jimmy. The show is going to open with huge talent. We have the best theatrical studios in the business and the best television studios in the business, who not only make extraordinary content for our platforms but make a lot of content for other people’s platforms. You’re going to see a lot of big debuts and announcements on that stage.

There will reportedly be a look at the combined ESPN, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery sports streamer at the upfront. What can you tell us about this? Are you working with those other ad teams at all?

Well, let me clarify something because I think there’s a little confusion. When I read those articles, I’m not sure people fully understand this. The new sports streamer—it’s actually not a sports streamer. It’s a digital MVPD. It is a way for people who have not had the desire or opportunity to be part of the MVPD ecosystem to have a way to get the sports and the content that they most value, and so having a smaller package of the right combination of sports rights for people to say, “Yes, this is worth the investment because I’m a big sports fan, and I want to follow.” We’re going to monetize that as part of our full sports portfolio. That’s how it gets monetized everywhere. It’s incremental reach to all of our distribution strategies across the board.

Disney has a lot going on with sports. There’s everything from the Stanley Cup final on ESPN this year to Caitlin Clark and women’s college basketball delivering higher ad engagement for Disney and its partners. What role does sports play in the upfront this year?

This is going to be an extraordinary year for ESPN. It’s the first year we have the full rights of the SEC portfolio across our platform. We now have a very robust NCAA deal across the ESPN platform that includes eight women’s and men’s championships across college sports, and we have our expansive NFL coverage, which last year had record audience growth. Obviously, the NBA has such a passionate following, and we’re so excited about continuing to expand on that.

And then a big opportunity clients have been embracing—and we’ve been committed to for years, but it’s really starting to pay off differently now—is women’s sports. We are seeing brands really getting involved and behind women’s sports and expanding the coverage of what we have been doing since we started our partnership with the WNBA 25 years ago.

What can you tell us about early negotiations?

Every single holding company is engaged in conversation. They want to understand how we’re coming to market and what’s going on with currency because Nielsen rolled out big data—there was a lot of momentum around it, but it’s still in conversations on if it’ll be adopted or not as part of this upfront. We’re ready and willing to transact with partners however they want to. Those are the conversations.

It’s also around where we are from an ad technology perspective, how are we going to drive innovation around that and where are the partnerships going to take us in terms of opportunities to test and do things differently together. I think there’s a lot more energy in the marketplace than there was a year ago. I’m hoping that this year it will move slightly faster than last year.

Streamers such as Netflix and Amazon are joining the upfront, and Disney is rolling out programmatic offerings such as expanding Disney Real-Time Ad Exchange (DRAX). With more offerings that get away from linear, how do you see upfront week changing in the future?

I do foresee a continued investment around a marketplace that allows people to plan and reserve the right inventory at the right price for a period of time, and so the notion of the upfront and how it works has really evolved. But I think there is still an opportunity to make sure that you reserve from a planning perspective the right amount of video inventory around a scarce premium marketplace. There is an excess of supply of video, but not premium video. And we know that premium environments deliver better outcomes, more engagement, and connect with consumers in a different way.

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