ViacomCBS Sets Revised Upfront Plan, With Virtual Presentations Over 2 Days

Called ViacomCBS Upfront @Home, the events begin May 18

In lieu of its usual Carnegie Hall upfront, ViacomCBS will unveil CBS' fall schedule during a May 19 virtual presentation. ViacomCBS
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Key insight:

A week before ViacomCBS would normally hold its annual upfronts bash at New York’s Carnegie Hall—which, like every other in-person upfronts week event, was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic—the company has set a new strategy for its first upfront since CBS and Viacom merged last December.

Instead of its May 13 event, the company will hold a pair of virtual presentations over two days—on Monday, May 18 and Tuesday, May 19—said Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer of domestic ad sales at ViacomCBS, to clients and agencies in a letter this afternoon.

The first day of the ViacomCBS Upfont @Home presentation will focus on the company’s combined assets and solutions, as well as a first look at shows across its cable networks, Pluto TV and its digital platforms. During the second day’s event, ViacomCBS will unveil CBS’ fall programming lineup, and spotlight programming from CBS All Access, CBS Sports (including Super Bowl LV, which CBS is scheduled to air on Feb. 7, 2021) and CBS News.

In other words, the May 18 event will take the place of the Viacom-focused agency dinners that had been planned for last month, while the May 19 presentation is a replacement for the traditional CBS soiree at Carnegie Hall.

“Our newly integrated team across ViacomCBS has come together even more quickly than I could have expected despite the pressure of extenuating circumstances,” Ross wrote in the letter. “This incredible progress gives me optimism for the days ahead. We have already achieved what we hoped to accomplish in bringing our sales organizations together—one team with a unified mission to provide you with the most powerful, seamless advertising solutions in the industry.”

As Adweek has previously reported, both buyers and sellers agree that this year’s upfront marketplace will operate on a staggered timetable, with buyers entering negotiations whenever their clients are ready to think about their long-term spend. For some categories that are thriving now, such as consumer packed goods, that will be in the next month or two, but for several others—including those hit hardest by the pandemic such as travel, dine-in restaurants and automotive—it is more likely that they’ll negotiate later in the year, shifting to a calendar upfront.

In her letter, Ross proclaimed a willingness to be similarly flexible with her company’s upfront talks: “We’re here for you whenever you’re ready. The ViacomCBS Ad Sales team will collaborate with you on your timeline to adapt your strategies, engage your consumers on the platforms they love most, amplify your messages and achieve your business goals.”

When May’s in-person upfronts week presentations were canceled on March 12, most media companies were vague about their plans, mentioning they would instead produce a streaming event. At that time, ViacomCBS was one of only two presenters (along with WarnerMedia/Xandr) that explicitly committed to sharing those video presentations during their previously scheduled upfront week timeframes, though it was assumed that most companies would stick to the same schedule.

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, and most companies delayed their virtual events.

However, both NBCUniversal and Univision later opted to hold livestreamed events for advertisers next week during the same time they would have held their upfronts week events: the morning of May 11 for NBCU, and the afternoon of May 12 for Univision. But both companies stressed that the events are not replacements for their original upfront presentations, and will instead be more focused on the current state of the marketplace.

That makes ViacomCBS the first media company to schedule official replacement events for its canceled upfronts week presentation.

ViacomCBS was one of the first media companies to take an immediate ad revenue hit as a result of Covid-19 in March, when March Madness—which it broadcasts in partnership with WarnerMedia—was canceled. That NCAA men’s basketball tournament generated $910 million in national ad revenue last year for the two companies, according to Kantar.

The coronavirus’ early impact on ViacomCBS ad revenue will come into sharper focus on Thursday morning, when the company reports its first quarter earnings.

Even as some states lift their shelter-in-place orders, and others begin the process of determining how they may reopen, several TV ad sales execs tell Adweek they are concerned that the biggest ad sales revenue hits are actually yet to come. That’s because no one knows when regular business operations will be able to resume, and more importantly, whether consumers will return to their pre-pandemic spending habits—particularly the 30 million people who have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus began to shut down the country.

Earlier this year, in her first interview since the December merger, Ross said she is crafting her overall sales strategy while looking at how CBS and Viacom each operated in the past and going though “holding company by holding company, account by account,” she said. “We’re taking very deep dives right now.”

ViacomCBS’ go-to-market strategy might be different for each brand, but “we want to simplify it for the clients,” Ross said. “We want to make the negotiation process very easy. We want to be transparent, and we want to offer solutions along the way. And I think that’s what clients want to see. They don’t want to be force-fed.”

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