NBC Trades Radio City for a Livestream to Give Advertisers a Taste of Fall

There were two celebrity cameos, one trailer and no scheduling announcements.

So who’s ready to buy some commercial time?

Every year, NBCUniversal holds a star-spangled showcase at Radio City Music Hall to get advertisers in the mood to buy commercial time for the fall TV season.

On Monday, amid the coronavirus pandemic, it was a very different scene.

Linda Yaccarino, NBC’s head of advertising, led a livestream presentation while seated at home in front of a neutral flower arrangement. “Obviously, this isn’t where we expected to be this week,” she said to the advertisers who had clicked on a private link for the NBCUniversal website.

The springtime showcases, referred to as “upfronts,” normally give TV executives a chance to play the host at grand locations like Carnegie Hall and the Beacon Theater. The events kick off the schmoozefests that help the networks secure more than $9 billion in ad money for prime-time shows and live sports.

This year, media companies are just hoping to remind advertisers that they still exist. Fox announced a tentative fall schedule on Monday but canceled its big showcase. The Walt Disney Company, owner of ABC, also scrapped its annual shindig in favor of several smaller presentations for ad buyers. CBS will host a pair of digital presentations next week.

“Today is not our programming announcement for what will happen,” Mark Marshall, a president of ad sales at NBCUniversal, said during the Monday videoconference. “Because we just don’t have a crystal ball of how exactly everything is going to happen.”

The 2020 Summer Olympics, scheduled to air on NBC, have been postponed a year. Hollywood productions have been shut down, and it is not clear if the networks will have much fresh fall programming. Ms. Yaccarino alluded to the fact that “Sunday Night Football,” an NBC staple, is still up in the air when she said, “Once we know the details about Sunday nights, you’ll be the first to know.”

News on the advertising front is grim. The research firm eMarketer estimated that companies will spend between $24 billion and $26 billion on TV ads in the first half of the year, potentially $10 billion less than the first six months of 2019.

Executives used Monday’s presentation to discuss NBCUniversal’s moves to cut back on ad time. The company also talked up its efforts to make ad placement more targeted, in part by using audience data.

Before the pandemic, traditional TV was under pressure from Netflix and other streaming platforms. Last week, NBCUniversal announced that all employees making more than $100,000 would get a pay cut and that senior leaders would take a 20 percent reduction in salary.

“This industry, it’s changing no matter what,” Ms. Yaccarino said. “It’s just happened much faster than any of us expected.”

NBCUniversal executives stressed that advertisers didn’t have to lock in ad time during the usual upfront period, given the questions hanging over the fall schedule, and ad buyers seemed content to wait.

“There shouldn’t be any big deal-making going on right now,” said Carrie Drinkwater, who runs investment for the Mediahub agency. “It might be foolish to try to make a deal and not know what you were making a deal with.”

NBC had only one trailer to show, for “Mr. Mayor,” a sitcom that was co-created by Tina Fey and stars Ted Danson as a hapless billionaire who becomes the mayor of Los Angeles.

The celebrity quotient during the livestream — usually a key component at upfronts — was muted. Kelly Clarkson, the host of an NBCUniversal syndicated talk show, opened the presentation from her home in Montana. Milo Ventimiglia, a star of “This Is Us,” also made a cameo.

Springtime in the TV industry usually means dinners, parties and showcases. Last year, NBC rented out the Pool and the Grill restaurants in the Seagram Building. The William Morris Endeavor agency usually hosts a cheek-by-jowl dinner at Peter Luger. ABC books Tavern on the Green. Fox hosts a dance party at the Wollman Rink in Central Park.

Catherine Sullivan, the chief investment officer of Omnicom Media Group North America, who oversees some $30 billion in ad spending, said she missed the usual events.

“There was glitz and glamour, sure, but also there were good conversations that you’d have at dinners and breakfasts, the human interaction that helped you understand what your clients’ needs were,” she said.

Will the old-style upfronts be back?

“I don’t think the upfronts are dead, but they may change their focus,” Ms. Sullivan said. “Whether they need to be at Radio City or Carnegie will be determined.”

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