NBCUniversal Wraps Its Nearly $7 Billion Upfront With 10% Volume Increase

Company sees 14% CPM gains in NBC primetime

This Is Us, which received a three-season renewal in May, helped drive NBC's upfront CPM hikes. Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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With a new ad sales duo leading its upfront negotiations this year, NBCUniversal didn’t miss a beat, crossing the upfront finish line with a nearly $7 billion haul that surpassed last year’s market by 10%.

“Once again, we led the market on both volume and price,” Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, who discussed NBCUniversal’s “close to $7 billion” upfront on this morning’s earnings call.

The company saw CPM (cost per thousand viewers reached) gains of 9% across the entire NBCU portfolio, while NBC primetime was up 13.5%, said Burke. Its digital video volume was up 50%, and those digital products were responsible for close to $1.3 billion in upfront revenue.

Its record upfront haul includes the 2020 Summer Olympics (the company would have had 3% volume gains without the Tokyo Games). Earlier this week, NBCUniversal said it expects to rake in more than $1.2 billion in ad sales during the Tokyo Games.

“We had a record upfront,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. “We sell more advertising than anyone else in the country.”

Cable network CPMs saw double-digit growth, while NBCU’s Sunday Night Football package had 8% volume increases. With the 2020 presidential election looming, MSNBC’s upfront volume jumped 6%.

The company’s biggest upfront category is now “digital-native companies” like the FAANG businesses, Peloton and streaming services, said Burke. These companies were responsible for $1 billion of the company’s upfront revenue. “Ironically, these are the businesses that are putting some pressure on our ratings,” he noted.

As shown by its upfront haul, “the advertising market is very, very healthy, and that’s part of the reason we’re very optimistic about the future of advertising on our broadcast and cable channels,” said Burke.

This year, NBCU ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino passed the upfronts baton to her two lieutenants, Mark Marshall and Laura Molen, who were both named presidents, NBCUniversal advertising sales and partnerships last October. Yaccarino relinquished her usual upfront duties as her oversight has expanded to include ad tech, measurement, marketing and monetizing NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming service.

The duo had plenty of major events to focus on during negotiations. “If you look at it across the year on NBC, you have the big tentpoles in fourth quarter being holidays and Sunday Night Football,” Marshall told Adweek in May. “Then first quarter you have Golden Globes, then you go to Billboard Music Awards, and in third quarter will be the biggest event in television history, the Tokyo Olympics.”

Molen and Marshall surpassed the company’s $6 billion-plus upfront haul last year, during which total upfront volume rose five percent across the NBCU portfolio, with CPM gains in the high single digits.

The company transacted all of its upfront business on its CFlight metric, which measures live, on-demand and time-shifted commercial impressions of episodes on every platform.

While CFlight was restricted to primetime and sports buys in last year’s upfront, “everything now will be measured through CFlight in the portfolio,” Molen told Adweek in May.

During this upfront, NBCU expanded its lucrative “prime pod” ad format, first offered a year ago in the portfolio’s original primetime series, into more shows and dayparts, including the Today show and late night.

The upfront also featured increased adoption of AdSmart, NBCUniversal’s suite of audience targeting offerings, which was formerly called Audience Studio.

The hefty CPM hikes for NBC included strong demand for This Is Us, which was last season’s No. 1 entertainment show in the demo, with a 3.8 rating. NBC gave the show a three-season renewal in May.

NBC set its fall premiere dates last month, with most shows debuting the week of Sept. 23.

In May, the company touted its still-unnamed upcoming streaming service in its upfronts pitch to advertisers. “We’re taking the long view and investing in what the future of advertising will look like. Our new ad-supported streaming platform will be available by mid-next year,” Yaccarino told attendees. “An unprecedented investment in data, technology and content, including everything you saw today, on a scale you can’t possibly imagine.”

On this morning’s earnings call, Burke said the company hopes to roll out the new OTT service in April 2020.

Several other networks and media companies have already completed their upfront business, including The CW, CBS, WarnerMedia and, most recently, Fox.

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