It's Time to Align the TV Upfront Marketplace with the Calendar

June 23, 2020

By Bill Duggan

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It’s upfront presentation season. Of course, this year the season is minus the in-person presentations, events, parties, and all the attendant hoopla.

Typically, the upfront spring selling season follows those presentations; that’s when the TV networks sell advertising inventory for the October through September "broadcast year."

There will be changes this year as the selling season will certainly get a later start. But now, more than at any other time in the 60-year history of the upfront, we need to change the timing of the marketplace to align inventory sold with the "calendar year." The reasons are straightforward.

For starters, many advertisers have fiscal years based on the calendar year. Buying television time for a period between this coming October and next September misaligns with that fiscal timing. For years, many advertisers have voiced concern that the upfront selling season is too early and affects the accuracy of forecasting spend given the long lead times.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis has brought unprecedented uncertainty for all the key players. For consumers, there have been dramatic changes in purchase behavior and massive unemployment. For marketers, there is uncertainty surrounding their overall business health and cash flow, as well as uncertainty about media budgets and available programming. For media companies, there is programming uncertainty as studios have shut down, preventing the production of new programming, and there are limited live sports and other live events.

Marketers have clearly expressed the need for greater flexibility related to their media investments. What we’ve heard more than anything else is the need for flexibility around the timing of the upfront. Recently, the ANA conducted three separate surveys asking members, "Would you be supportive of or opposed to the ANA suggesting to the networks that the television upfront be delayed and moved to a calendar year (starting January 2021)?"

The key finding: 83 percent of ANA members surveyed (in aggregate) support that the television upfront be delayed and moved to a calendar year.

For those who expressed support for a move of the upfront to the calendar year, representative verbatim motives included:

  • "Because we will have more ability to understand the economic situation and needs of our businesses."
  • "Too much uncertainty on all sides of the equation (business, budgets, content, etc.) for a regular upfront — and the uncertainty is likely to remain for some time."
  • "All sides have too much uncertainty to move at the usual time. The upfront has many benefits to all sides; timing is just a huge problem for all right now. Perfect reason to push back timing."
  • "Calendar year makes more sense given budgets."
  • "It would provide advertisers an opportunity to get through the worst of this pandemic cycle, evaluate how our business has managed, and make sound decisions around strategy and budgets. There are too many unknowns right now to make big investments with confidence."

Over the past few months I’ve had the privilege of working with the ANA Media Advisory Board, a group of senior-level client-side media executives who act as change agents and identify issues which the ANA should become involved with and/or take a position on. A key strategic objective of the group is to transform the media ecosystem to improve returns on media investments.

An immediate recommendation from the ANA Media Advisory Board is for the traditional broadcast-year upfront be moved permanently to a calendar-year upfront marketplace and that fourth quarter 2020 be treated separately, given the unique circumstances and uncertainty.

Many advertisers may not realize that a significant number of deals are already done on a calendar-year basis. Two major sellers told us that calendar-year buys already represent 20 percent of their respective businesses. According to one major agency, 25 percent of their client investments for national television are done on a calendar year; another major agency has 50 percent of such investments on a calendar year. So, the calendar-year marketplace is already working for many advertisers.

There is clearly no "one size fits all" approach to the television upfront marketplace. Uncertainty will cause many advertisers to seek delays in making their upfront commitments. But there will be some seeking an advantage by moving in the traditional broadcast-year marketplace timing. Those who prefer to wait should not have FOMO — fear of missing out — as the networks do business year-round. Ultimately, companies will and should choose to transact at a time and in a manner that works best for their own respective businesses. But a calendar-year upfront just makes so much sense for so many!

The timing of the upfront is just one of the issues that the ANA Media Advisory Board is working on to address media transformation. Other issues of significance include cross platform measurement, brand safety, anti-fraud, data transparency, and privacy.

The ANA Media Advisory Board has issued guidance on the upfront and media transformation overall — one for the C-suite, and the other for media practitioners — which can be accessed here.


This blog was originally posted on Campaign.


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