Buyers Navigate Makeshift Broadcast Schedules to Set Their Fall TV Buys

The biggest shows aren’t ready, but advertisers need their Q4 impressions

Actresses in upcoming fall TV shows
Even with their Covid-altered lineups, media companies are preparing for a robust fall on the ad sales front. Jan Thijs/CBS, Peggy Sirota/ABC, Skip Bolen/Fox
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The 2020-21 TV season begins this week, which normally would mean a flurry of premieres for new and returning broadcast shows. Last year, 79 programs debuted within the season’s first month. But this year is anything but normal due to Covid-19, which continues to disrupt and delay production.

The pandemic has forced broadcasters to cobble together makeshift schedules for the early weeks of the fall until their biggest scripted shows can return in November, when NBC dramas like This Is Us and Law & Order: SVU will debut, or in early 2021, when Fox shows like 9-1-1 and The Resident will be back.

While Fox and The CW announced pandemic-proof fall schedules in May, with most scripted shows delayed until midseason, the other broadcasters held out hope that production would resume in time to stick to their usual fall lineups. And they didn’t wave the white flag and unveil alternate slates until late last month.

The networks have devised creative ways to fill their schedule gaps, but that leaves “a bit of a void” for advertisers when it comes to early fall broadcast programming, said David Campanelli, co-chief investment officer at Horizon Media. “It isn’t necessarily ideal to have that much reality—but it’s new content at least.”

Even with their Covid-altered lineups, media companies are preparing for a robust fall on the ad sales front. “We’re in really good shape,” said Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer of domestic advertising sales at ViacomCBS.

And while more fourth-quarter scatter inventory will be available than usual this fall because some marketers shifted from a broadcast upfront (October-September) to a calendar year as a result of Covid-19, most expect it to be quickly snapped up.

“We were sold out of scatter in the third quarter, so we feel great about what scatter will look like in the fourth quarter,” said Mark Marshall, NBCUniversal’s president of advertising sales and partnerships.

So far, advertisers haven’t adjusted their media buys as result of those last-minute broadcast programming shifts. “There’s some risk in October that we could underdeliver, but we’ve been proactive with networks already” in coming up with makegood strategies related to the delayed premieres, said Campanelli.

After all, as another buyer admitted, “it’s not like they’re going to stop advertising in the fourth quarter, because Christmas isn’t moving. They need to be in market when they can drive the most ROI and have the best opportunity to convert sales.”

Still, buyers worry whether consumers will return to broadcast this fall, given that the pandemic accelerated their shift from linear to streaming.

“Can we convert consumers back after six to nine months of telling them that streaming is the best thing ever? Will people just abandon traditional linear television and cable subscriptions and go straight to streaming?” said Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead at GroupM’s Mindshare.

Others feel that a return to normalcy could also bring people back to traditional TV.

“We haven’t had a routine since March, and there was a shift,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director of integrated investments at Mediahub, continuing that she thinks it will likely change as schools start up and consumers settle back into typical fall routines.

At least one network said it isn’t concerned about convincing viewers to return. NBC will rely on Sunday Night Football—the No. 1 show in prime time for the past decade—to help drive audiences toward its scripted shows as they return to air.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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