TV Upfronts

What to Expect From WBD's Upfront, According to Ad Sales Boss Jon Steinlauf

The company is prioritizing new Max sponsorships and its sticky, sizable sports portfolio

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Warner Bros. Discovery will address marketers next Wednesday at its TV upfront presentation in Madison Square Garden, where ad buyers will be eager to hear the latest offerings coming to Max and developments in its sports portfolio.

According to Jon Steinlauf, chief U.S. advertising sales officer at WBD, the company will address both of those topics, as well as tout its expanded targeting capabilities and a handful of evolutions at existing properties. 

“As a company, across all of our content platforms, we are reaching about 80% of the U.S. population,” Steinlauf said. “That scale, along with our targeting, is what we are bringing to the upfront.”

In particular, both TruTV and CNN are in the midst of transformations to their editorial strategy that are designed to draw in larger, more engaged audiences, according to Steinlauf.

These evolutions mirror larger trends across the streaming space, which have been reiterated multiple times throughout the upfronts and NewFronts. In short, television publishers are working to balance the slow decline of their lucrative linear properties with the rapid ascent of their largely unprofitable streaming services.

Of all the content genres on the selling block, though, none is more attractive to buyers and audiences than sports. WBD has a broad portfolio of sports offerings, with marquee packages involving the NFL, NBA and NCAA Men’s March Madness franchises. It also has a variety of new sports rights, including a multiyear deal with Nascar and other signings to expand that umbrella further.

Ahead of its upfront, Steinlauf spoke with ADWEEK about its offerings for marketers, its plan for bringing theatrical sponsorships to Max and the latest on its joint sports venture alongside Fox and Disney.

ADWEEK: What will the main areas of focus be for WBD during its upfront next week?

Jon Steinlauf: The three main areas for growth in ad sales are: advanced advertising, sports and ad-supported Max. It’s hard to say which is the most important.

What kind of targeting capabilities is WBD offering advertisers across linear and streaming?

We’ve spent a lot of time gearing up our data capabilities. We announced Olli a week or two ago, and it gets first-party data from 100 million households. With Olli, the offering we are promoting to buyers is called converged Data-Driven Video. That allows us to follow a targeted segment from linear over to digital, which enables us to manage frequency caps, as well as the optimal level of reach for those 100 million households.

For linear, we have a product called Data-Driven Linear, which has been in market for about five years. It allows us to take a look at the 25 or so linear networks that we own and breaks each into five parts. From that, we get about 125 different segments. We then look at an advertiser’s strategic target, and see which of those 125 options has the highest index for that target. In a nutshell, it’s a way for us to reach an advertiser’s target audience across linear channels.

Sports have been a growing source of interest for streamers and ad buyers because of their scale and engagement. What offerings does WBD have in that space?

In the sports world, we have two very prominent properties: the NBA and the NCAA Men’s March Madness, which is close to a $1 billion ad sales property. This year, the Super Bowl was followed almost immediately by the NBA All-Star Weekend on TNT. In general, I look at that stretch from February to May as the time in which our sports inventory is most prominent.

On some nights, our sports properties have reached as much as 60% of the entire linear audience, which speaks to the power of our sports portfolio. While we are working to build out our sports offerings on streaming, we have a great respect for the 71 million homes still paying for television. As an audience, they are often wealthy, highly educated and sports fans. In terms of new sports contracts, we added Nascar this year on a multi-year deal. We will also be bringing back our offerings from the MLB, NHL and others.

What can you share about WBD’s ongoing negotiations to sign a package of games from the NBA?

I understand that is a hot topic, but I can’t comment on it unfortunately. Same thing with our joint venture alongside Disney and Fox.

What updates can you share about new ad-supported offerings on Max?

At our upfront Wednesday, we are going to be talking about our “IP Upfronts,” which are our tentpole moments that drive pop culture. On that front, we have two main offerings: our WBD theatrical releases and our HBO Original Series. We have a lot of great theatrical releases coming to theaters and then to Max, including Dune 2, Furiosa, Beetlejuice and Joker 2. When those movies arrive on Max, they become television events. As a result, we are looking to sell sponsorships against those debuts. This is the first upfront where we are offering that.

We are doing the same thing with the HBO Original Series. In the next few months, we have second seasons of shows including House of the Dragon and White Lotus, as well as the new season of And Just Like That and The Last of Us. We sold sponsorships against these in the last year, but this will be the first time they’re available at the upfront.

What other channels are big sources of focus?

Well, with the election this year, we are really expecting CNN to have its moment. The new chief executive Mark Thompson will be speaking at the upfront, where he will address the position of balance that the news outlet is taking, as well as its verticals outside of news in spaces like finance, food, travel and wellness.

Additionally, we are also underway with a significant shift to our TruTV linear channel. It is transitioning into becoming a sports property, in part because the demographic it has historically attracted is younger men, which also over-indexes in sports viewership.

We know the linear landscape—like the streaming landscape—can be challenging to navigate, especially for sports fans. You never know what game is on what channel. By converting TruTV into a more sports-centric property, we are giving our sports products more real estate and capturing even more eyeballs. The next step is to turn it into an alternative sportscast, similar to the way The Manning Cast takes football but caters to a slightly different audience.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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