Upfront TV Marketplace Timetable in Doubt as COVID-19 Wreaks Havoc

‘We're not going to go to market until our clients are ready to go.’

Upfront events have already been wiped out by the novel coronavirus—and the timing of the upfront marketplace is now also in question.
Walt Disney Television/Lorenzo Bevilaqua

Key insights:

It has been exactly two weeks since May’s annual upfronts week was wiped out in its entirety, as every major media company pulled the plug on their traditional events over several hours.

But that may be just the start of how the novel coronavirus will completely reshape upfront season. As buyers and media companies enact new strategies in the wake of COVID-19’s impact on the country and world, several are beginning to doubt whether upfront negotiations can be conducted in their usual late spring/summer timeframe.

With many buyers and brands still focused on reallocating their media spend in the wake of sports cancellations and postponements (including March Madness and the Summer Olympics), and reevaluating the tone of their current ads amid the pandemic, “I don’t think clients are thinking about the upfront just yet,” said one buyer, speaking anonymously.

Given the upheaval across almost all categories as a result of businesses being shuttered and most Americans social distancing or sheltering in place, it could be several months before advertisers are able to set their long-term buying plans.

“Best case scenario, if you’re looking at a return to normalcy in four weeks or six weeks, nobody is going to be prepared to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to talk about upfront budgets.’ We’re still dealing with the current situation,” said another buyer, also speaking anonymously.

"If you’re looking at a return to normalcy in four weeks or six weeks, nobody is going to be prepared to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to talk about upfront budgets.’"
Anonymous ad buyer

That means that “we’re not going to go to market until our clients are ready to go, and comfortable with committing in advance,” said another buyer. Right now, given all the financial uncertainty, “we have some clients that are worried that they’re not going to be able to pay their workers.”

Another big question mark that will throw a wrench into this year’s upfront talks is the uncertainty over what programming will be featured on each network, now that TV production has come to a standstill—including the broadcast pilots that will be in contention for next year’s schedule.

“It’s hard to know where pilot season is going to net out,” said a buyer. “What shows are going to be on the air? What’s going to be picked?”

This is an issue that will arise in the coming months as the production pipeline dries up. Already, two high-profile cable series that were set to debut next month—Season 4 of FX’s Fargo and AMC’s next Walking Dead spinoff, World Beyond—have been delayed until later in the year because production had not been completed prior to the shutdown.

“If production has halted everywhere, what the heck are we going to run in, once this slew of programming runs out?” wondered a buyer. “Do they bring back movies? Do they create stuff digitally?”

Is a calendar year upfront the answer?

Some media companies are open to the idea of pushing back the upfront marketplace if necessary.

“This could be a year where we rethink, what is the upfront and how do we trade television?”
Anoymous ad buyer

“I’ve had a few conversations with agency partners, who have said, the idea that marketers right now on May 1 can come forward with really solid budgets for the next 18 months feels a little crazy to me,” said Peter Olsen, evp of ad sales at A+E Networks. That company was supposed to hold its annual upfront event this week, but scrapped those plans and has shifted its upfront messaging from upcoming programming to highlighting its COVID-19 social initiatives.

Olsen is advocating for a switch to a calendar year upfront. “If most clients’ fiscals are calendar fiscals, we probably should negotiate in October, not in May,” he said. “A lot of the clients we talked to would love it if the upfront timing was actually moved to the [calendar year] on a permanent basis because they’d have a better idea of what their real budgets are. Maybe this is a trigger to make a change that is probably logical anyway.”

Time to revamp—but not retire—the upfront

Whether that shift happens or not—and it will ultimately be up to the buyers, not the media companies—several buyers suggest that this would be a good year to revamp the upfront marketplace.

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