'Tis the season when Britain’s commercial TV broadcasters usually host their annual upfronts – glitzy, red-carpet events where they show off upcoming shows and wheel out celebrity talent to impress marketers and media buyers.
While the parties were pooped by the pandemic, it hasn’t stopped the TV industry from giving us an important story this year: Covid is forcing both established and disruptor companies into new behaviours.
TV’s biggest beasts have committed to shorter advanced-booking deadlines – after decades of demanding ad buyers give at least two months’ notice or face penalties. ITV has pledged to reduce its AB deadline for all of 2021. Channel 4 has made the switch to four-week deadlines permanent.
Even pre-Covid, asking advertisers to commit eight weeks in advance seemed like a relative eternity, with the media world increasingly turning to response-led advertising such as search and social, that can be quickly switched on and off.
Shorter AB deadlines show how power is shifting towards brand marketers, who are demanding greater flexibility, and away from media buyers and owners, who used to like the greater financial stability that came with long booking times (the so-called penalty charges for late booking were usually passed on to the advertisers anyway).
Simon Davis, chief executive of Walk-In Media, has long advocated greater flexibility. “In an uncertain environment like this, having a restriction like late booking deadlines makes no sense,” Davis says. “You need flexibility and no barriers.”
Shorter deadlines tell only part of the story. TV prices went into freefall in April and May, when brands such as Coca-Cola and sectors such as travel and gambling went on pause, and it forced broadcasters to think differently and welcome new and unexpected advertisers.
Research by Thinkbox, based on Barb linear TV data, shows that 341 brands were either new to TV or returned after five years’ away between April and September. One-fifth were ecommerce or social media brands, including TikTok, which launched its first British TV ad in May.
This new money proved that TV remains attractive, especially when it is easier to buy. Google and Facebook have shown what is possible because they have built up a “long tail” of smaller advertisers over the past decade. Indeed, the TV market showed signs of recovery in September and October, although new national restrictions have now cast fresh uncertainty over the pre-Christmas period.
TV needs to deal with big, structural challenges regardless of Covid-19. Linear viewing surged during the first lockdown in the spring but live audiences have been falling with each passing year, particularly among the young.
VOD is growing but those ad sales are not enough to compensate for falls in “linear” broadcast ad revenue. Its inventory is relatively expensive and sells out quickly. What’s more, ad-funded broadcasters are having to compete for on-demand audiences against ad-free streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime.
Hence, the significance of ITV’s decision in October to restructure its broadcast business into two divisions – with a new unit focused solely on VOD alongside the traditional, linear operation. Disney has done something similar by making streaming the “primary focus” of its media division.
These are encouraging moves for a sector where it is not just content but also convenience that audiences and advertisers want. Broadcasters need a better story to tell by the time their upfronts (hopefully) return in 2021.
Omar Oakes is media and technology editor at Campaign