May Upfronts Week Collapses as Most Media Companies Delay Their Virtual Events

NBCU, Fox, Disney among presenters postponing their scheduled dates

a big stage with big screens
Instead of focusing on an upfront event, Fox is having execs including Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier hold virtual town halls with clients. Fox
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One month ago, the annual May upfronts week was upended as all the major media companies canceled their presentations en masse and switched to virtual events amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The TV advertising tradition is now in the process of dissolving entirely this year, as most presenters have decided to delay their virtual events for several weeks, or rethink their plans entirely.

Most of the upfronts week presenters—including NBCUniversal, Fox, Discovery and Disney—told Adweek that while they haven’t set a timeframe for their respective virtual presentations, they will no longer be held during upfronts week, which was supposed to kick off on May 11. WarnerMedia and Xandr have also decided to call off their joint event, scheduled for May 13, according to a source, though both companies declined to comment on their plans.

Several presenters indicated that it wouldn’t be feasible for all of them to agree on a single week to relocate the entire schedule. Instead, companies will follow their own timetables this year, depending on what is best for them and their clients.

That means this will be the first year without an upfronts week—in any form—in decades. Each May, buyers and advertisers traditionally congregate in New York before the upfront marketplace heats up for a week of glitzy presentations, client meetings and plenty of cocktails.

When the in-person presentations were canceled on March 12, most media companies were vague about their plans, mentioning they would instead produce a streaming event.

Only two presenters—ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia/Xandr—explicitly committed to sharing those video presentations during their previously scheduled upfront week timeframes, though it was assumed that most other companies would follow suit and that upfronts week would still take place, albeit virtually.

But in the following weeks, as the novel coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on the industry and the country, it became clear that this year’s upfront marketplace could not move forward as planned.

Buyers told Adweek they likely will not be able to conduct upfront negotiations in the usual late spring/summer time frame, with many doubtful that their clients will have upfront budgets in place by May, given that so many companies are reeling from the financial impact of the pandemic with no relief in sight.

In other words, “we’re not going to go to market until our clients are ready to go and comfortable with committing in advance,” said one buyer.

That reality, coupled with the fact that almost all TV production has ground to a halt—including all the broadcast pilots in contention for next year’s schedules—made the prospect of a May upfronts week untenable.

As a result, NBCUniversal, which had been set to kick off upfronts week on Monday morning, will not go forward with its virtual presentation on May 11, according to a spokesperson.

When NBCU canceled its upfront, the company said it would be televising and streaming its alternate presentation, which would be tailored to its viewers in addition to marketing partners. NBCU will continue with that strategy whenever it does go forward with its event.

A source familiar with Fox’s thinking said the company had never planned on holding its virtual upfront on the afternoon of May 11, and will not be streaming its presentation on that date. The company hasn’t yet determined whether it will hold a digital presentation at all, and has instead been focusing on marketplace outreach with its clients.

Last week, Fox Sports execs held virtual town halls with agencies to help them plan for the return of live sports following the pandemic. The company is now replicating that approach on the entertainment side, with execs including Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier holding similar virtual meetings with clients.

Discovery, which had moved into upfronts week for the first time ever this year, grabbing the Tuesday morning slot vacated by ESPN, said it will no longer be presenting that week either.

“Given the rapidly changing environment, we’re being extremely flexible with clients and agencies to best serve their needs. It won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution or one-day streamed event in place of the previously envisioned stage show,” said a Discovery spokesperson in a statement. “We are beginning to conduct individual customized upfront presentations for agencies and clients across the country via video conference.”

Disney has not set a date for its streaming event, but does not plan to hold it on May 12, when its in-person presentation had been scheduled, according to a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, ViacomCBS still expects to engage advertisers in some way in mid-May, but likely not with a full-fledged upfront presentation, which will probably happen at a later date, according to company sources.

Other upfronts week presenters haven’t committed to holding their virtual events outside of mid-May, but only because they haven’t set their plans at all.

The CW, which usually rounds out the week on Thursday morning, is still exploring different ideas for a potential presentation and has not decided what form its virtual session will take—or when it will occur.

Univision’s bash is traditionally on Tuesday morning, but ad sales chief Steve Mandala said in a statement that “Univision’s decisions about the timing of our video presentation will be made in close consultation with our clients and partner agencies based on their readiness to engage in the important upfront market. We will be prepared with an engaging video presentation whenever our partners determine they are ready.”

The news of upfronts week’s collapse comes one week after the Interactive Advertising Bureau postponed the Digital Content NewFronts for nearly two months, moving the annual event to the week of June 22. However, some NewFronts presenters—including Twitter, Digitas and Amazon—have declined to participate in the postponed event.

Unlike the IAB-controlled NewFronts, upfronts week has no such central oversight, which is why presenters have decided to create their own alternate plans.

Many of those presenters will gather on April 22 for the VAB’s semiannual board of directors meeting, and while several companies expect that upfront plans will be discussed that day, they said their respective decisions on upfront event scheduling won’t be impacted by those talks.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.