Without the ability to see the shows they're putting their dollars up against, or even what the TV guide will look like, advertisers have to decide which programming to invest in, sight unseen. That is a challenge, even when it comes to the biggest names in the business.
"Disney and NBCUniversal have a track record, but that track record also includes broadcast programming that hasn't quite hit the quality of cable and streaming platforms over the last couple of years," said Media Director Danny Weisman of media agency Noble People. "My biggest concern is not over a lack of trailers, though. It's if and when these new, or returning, shows, come back. With productions shut down, it's hard to justify a large upfront commitment to a rather unknown televised schedule."
Advertisers spent $20 billion during last year's upfront season, about $9 billion on prime time ads on the major broadcasters ABC, FOX, NBC, and CBS, and $11 billion on cable networks.
While it's uncertain which shows will make it to air this year, one thing is clear: viewers want live sports, something that has been missing throughout the pandemic.
"We've seen connected media usage go up extremely high, most likely due to sports being sidelined and those viewers moving elsewhere, and as sports programming viewership is determined, their prospective media partners will be the best bet for fall," said Christine Price, a senior media buyer for advertising agency Marcus Thomas.
While people still have a voracious appetite for content, there's evidence that the amount of broadcast and cable TV they're watching is returning to pre-COVID levels of viewership, according to data from video analytics company VideoAmp.
But the belief is that advertisers can always bet on sports and its fans. Out of the top 50 U.S. broadcasts in 2019, 44 events were sports-related according to Nielsen. The ESPN Coronavirus Lockdown Fan Study found 88 percent of people who consider themselves fans are itching to watch as many sports programs as they can when they return. About 2.35 million people tuned into TaylorMade Driving Relief, the golf tournament which marked one of the first returns to live sports since the pandemic. The NBA has also hatched a comeback, sans fans in the stands, and a proposal for the MLB is the works. The Olympics are expected to take place in July 2021.
"Sports return will take some of the pressure off [of ad investments] since that's known content," Omnicom Media Group chief investment officer Catherine Sullivan said. Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced production sets to shut down, there were questions about how much of marketing budgets should be dedicated to TV. With audiences moving to streaming and other online platforms and live viewership declining, advertisers were already thinking about shifting investments to digital platforms. TV ad dollars were expected to drop to below 25 percent of total U.S. ad spend by 2022 per eMarketer, though the pandemic may have thrown off projections.
To address this, networks have touted their cross-screen capabilities this upfront season. NBCUniversal talked about its advertising offering, One Platform, that would let brands reach 211 million adults 18 and over each month globally. Disney pitched its reach of 284 million monthly viewers across "the best of entertainment, sports, and streaming," and touted that two out of three people online go to Disney properties.
"Reach has never been the problem with TV," Noble People's Weisman said. "Despite cord-cutting, it's still a major reach vehicle for a lot of groups of people, and up to this point, was upheld by its dominance in live sports."Media companies have been asking advertisers to trust them — and for the most part, agencies say they do when it comes to TV shows and mini-series. But if entertainment conglomerates want to recoup their losses during the pandemic and kickstart their businesses for the rest of the year and beyond, sports will need to make their comeback.
"There is no doubt marketers are concerned about content, but they have faith in the major media brands that they will produce quality content," said Dentsu executive vice president for U.S. video investment Cara Lewis. "The bigger question is around the return of sports and how legacy investments may need to shift."