Led by Viacom, Networks Try Their Hand at Festivals to Lure Fans and Brands

But buyers caution those events can be 'hit or miss' for marketers

The BET Experience will return to Los Angeles from June 21-24. BET Experience
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Viacom has largely backed away from throwing mammoth upfront events, but during the rest of the year, the company has embraced them like never before for flagship networks BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount Network. “Building on the success of our international events business, every flagship brand now will have a live event in the U.S.,” Viacom CEO Bob Bakish said during an earnings call in February.

So, Comedy Central is holding its second annual Clusterfest from June 1-3 in San Francisco, Nickelodeon SlimeFest makes its U.S. debut on June 9 and 10 in Chicago, and the BET Experience will return to Los Angeles from June 21-24.

And while Viacom may be leading the charge, other networks are now planning events of their own. Adult Swim will hold its first Adult Swim Festival Oct. 6-7 in downtown L.A., while former Scripps chief programming, content and brand officer Kathleen Finch, whose Food Network became presenting sponsor of the Wine and Food Festivals in New York and Miami’s South Beach in 2007 with Cooking Channel joining as co-presenting sponsor in 2015, said to expect expansion in the live events space now that Discovery and Scripps have merged. “All of us think that it’s a business that’s valuable and a great way to touch an audience,” said Finch, who is now chief lifestyle brands officer for the combined Discovery Inc. “There are a lot of conversations going on.”

More networks than ever are heading into the upfront with live events and festivals that provide a new revenue stream while offering brands a new way to reach consumers.

“There is incredible emotional equity value that resonates when their consumers get to touch our different brands, and that’s an incredible value to be associated with as a brand sponsoring that,” said Sean Moran, head of marketing and partner solutions, Viacom. “The other thing that a lot of brands are finding out is you need to be having that interaction with your consumer in person at times.” Ideally, that interaction prompts consumers to share their experiences, causing “a unique ripple effect.”

So far, Viacom hasn’t had trouble luring brands to its events. While the sponsors for this year’s festivals are still under wraps, last year’s Clusterfest drew the likes of Booking.com, MillerCoors, Papa John’s, Pepsi and Unilever.

Zedd, Liam Payne, Flo Rida and JoJo Siwa will perform at Nickelodeon's SlimeFest.
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Comedy Central's Clusterfest features headliners like Jon Stewart, Amy Schumer and The Lonely Island.
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Network festivals aren’t the right fit for every brand, though. These events “have been hit or miss for advertisers throughout the years,” said David Campanelli, svp, director of national broadcast for Horizon Media. “You are helping support something that people are passionate about in a very direct way. The challenge is logistically; it’s such a different animal than buying a 30-second spot in the upfront. Some clients don’t have the resources to activate on the ground like that.”

Then again, they might not have a choice. Network-centric live events are only going to become more prevalent. “Experiential is coming into a new renaissance,” said David Cohen, president, North America, Magna Global. With consumers exposed to thousands of advertising messages each day, “you don’t want to be lost in that sea. You want to be able to connect, and I think experiential does that.”

Beyond helping consumers connect with brands, live events are also key to strengthening—or reestablishing—bonds between fans and networks, bonds that are vital for media companies trying to keep audiences from straying to other outlets. MTV president Chris McCarthy, who has spent the past year and a half resuscitating the brand, is reviving Spring Break on MTV next year for the first time in a decade. “Where we probably went awry is when we let go of those events in the U.S.,” he said. “So it feels great to go back.”

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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