TV Executives Bash Digital Rivals While Talking Up Digital's Promise

When Linda Yaccarino, head of ad sales for NBCUniversal, pitched a room full of advertisers early this week, she hammered the theme that television is a better destination for their ad dollars than fast-growing digital services.

"What the hell is a view anyway?" she said, speaking at an annual presentation of the Comcast Corp. media unit's programming for the fall TV season. "Has a view bought any of your products? No. Viewers buy products. That's why TV works. It reaches real people."

Later in the presentation, NBCUniversal struck a different note. The company touted its investment in digital darling BuzzFeed and its partnerships with Snapchat and Apple News.

In presentations this week to promote programming for the 2017-18 season, sales executives from major cable and broadcast networks had to pull off a carefully orchestrated balancing act. Bigwigs from Fox, NBC and CBS took aim at Facebook, YouTube and other digital platforms in the hopes of wooing commercial dollars back to traditional media.

At the same time, they talked up their own digital chops, as well as partnerships with and investments in digital companies. Indeed, that has become a key message, as they find little to brag about to advertisers in terms of ratings and hit shows.

"There's certainly some hedging going on," said Ben Winkler, chief investment officer at Omnicom ad-buying shop OMD. Today's media companies need the digital platforms to reach young people, he said, "and there's just simply too many advertisers trying to reach young people to ignore that reality. So they're covering their flank."

As the rivalry between TV and digital media players intensifies, the trend line isn't good for traditional media: digital ad spending surpassed TV ad expenditures last year and is expected to reach $83 billion this year, about $10 billion more than TV, according to eMarketer.

Their TV pitches come as Facebook deals with a series of measurement errors, and Google faces advertisers concerned about their ads appearing next to violent or otherwise inappropriate videos on YouTube.

"There's always tension, but media brands feel emboldened this year with the brand safety issues," said Lyle Schwartz, GroupM's president of investment for North America.

Google and Facebook had no immediate comment.

CBS, which presented its fall lineup late Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, did not hold back. "[There are] real people watching your commercials in hit shows with zero fraud, all from a source you can trust, unlike some digital platforms," said Jo Ann Ross, head of ad sales at the network. Ms. Ross then showed an ad for a cruise line that appeared near a video of a sinking ship on Google-owned YouTube. "At CBS, we don't let this kind of ship happen to you," she said.

CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves also mentioned that CBS is available on "online bundles of every size" and said, "no service can exist without CBS programming." Google's YouTube TV is among the streaming services that feature CBS programming.

"Apple, Amazon and Google are all about mass audience and so are we," he said.

Ad buyers don't think TV executives are talking out of both sides of their mouth. "I think you can criticize Google and Facebook but still invest in digital media without being hypocritical," said Mr. Winkler. "They're unique, distinct platforms."

At its presentation, Fox spent little time championing the characteristics of traditional media and more time touting its own digital prowess.

Fox "dwarfs Facebook and Youtube in delivering your message," said Joe Marchese, the network's new ad sales chief. "On any given Tuesday, Fox primetime delivers 700 Facebooks," he added. Fox later touted the network's large social "footprint," in effect crediting the social media platforms for helping it deliver its message.

Fox's aim was to persuade advertisers that a traditional network like Fox can meet and beat digital ad giants at their own game. Mr. Marchese, a veteran of the ad technology industry, is backing an initiative with rivals Turner and Viacom Inc. to allow more sophisticated types of ad targeting in TV. The goal is for marketers to be able to reach soda drinkers or home buyers instead of just men or women 18 to 49, for example.

Sarah Hofstetter, chief executive at ad-buying and marketing shop 360i, said TV networks have had to evolve their case against digital as online advertising has matured.

"For years, Facebook, was trying to compare themselves to TV, and TV was like, whatever we're big," she said. "Now they're seeing [digital companies] and saying, oh they do have scale so what do we have that's different."

Mr. Winkler of OMD says touting TV's strength without embracing digital won't get the networks anywhere with ad buyers.

"The future of video is one that's rooted in the creativity and innovation of digital, plus the content of TV, and focusing solely on the content and traditional distribution of TV does not feel like a sustainable strategy."

--Joe Flint contributed to this article.

Write to Alexandra Bruell at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 19, 2017 06:14 ET (10:14 GMT)