ViacomCBS Sales Chief Jo Ann Ross On Unified Upfront, Streaming Push, Appetite For Linear & More

The onset of Covid-19 in March 2020, at the traditional leading edge of TV upfront season, forced an epic scramble for TV networks and advertisers.

The upfronts ended up happening, but in fractured, virtual form. ViacomCBS, just months after merging, decided to stage a two-part pitch, showcasing Viacom’s networks and CBS on different days.

This time around, as sales chief Jo Ann Ross has prepared for today’s virtual event, the reunification of Viacom and CBS has seemed much more complete. “We have a very full portfolio approach, across the entire ecosystem in one presentation,” she told Deadline in an interview.

The marketplace, too, has calmed in some respects. The dire effects of the pandemic on production, live sports and normal consumer habits has eased significantly. While the complexity of shifting viewing patterns remains a challenge, Ross sees a brighter picture overall. “Last year, we weren’t sure when the season would start,” she said. TV schedules suddenly were written in sand, ever shifting. The Masters golf tournament, known for spring azaleas, moved from April to November. This year, Ross said, “we’re excited that we’re going to be basically back in a normal pattern.”

One question about the return to — if not normal, then at least some more familiar footing — is the role of linear TV. Despite continued struggles in the ratings, linear still plays an important role. Major media agency GroupM has forecast that national TV advertising will grow 6.6% this year to $42.6 billion, with local rising 16% to just shy of $20 billion.

“Clients still love buying linear,” Ross said. “They’re not running away from linear. They may just be reallocating resources into digital.”

The linear story at ViacomCBS has the advantage of CBS being the top viewer draw in broadcast for 13 years running. Ross knows that narrative inside and out, having presided over numerous upfronts as head of sales for CBS Corp. She admits to a tinge of nostalgia recalling the company’s trademark upfront events at New York’s Carnegie Hall. (Among her memorable entrances on that historic stage was one where she wore a dress with LED lights spelling out “YOUR AD HERE.”) The hope is to get back onstage in person in 2022.

Ross wouldn’t comment on the recent tussle between Nielsen and broadcast and cable network parent companies. The networks, through the Video Advertising Bureau, insist that Nielsen has significantly undercounted viewership not only during stretches of 2020 but even into the first quarter of 2021. Nielsen has acknowledged the need to review its practices, but the VAB is calling for a full restatement of ratings. “The entire March-to-March period – has to be subject to an audit the likes of which has never been performed before,” the VAB’s Sean Cunningham said in a recent interview with Deadline.

In terms of digital, the ViacomCBS includes key elements derived from both CBS and Viacom. Paramount+ expanded and rebranded from CBS All Access earlier this year, and free streaming outlet Pluto, acquired by Viacom in 2019, has become a mainstay. The company also has well-established ad-supported streaming services like CBSN and CBS Sports HQ. Pluto, which now has 49.5 million monthly active users, paced a 65% increase in streaming ad sales in the first quarter, to $816 million.

Addressability, which has been the goal of the ad business for at least a decade, is showing signs of becoming material. More than 40% of ViacomCBS inventory can be classified as addressable.

Sports has been a shot in the arm (forgive the expression) in the early part of 2021, with the Super Bowl in February and the return of March Madness, which was canceled in 2020. Those events propelled a 21% year-over-year rise in ad revenue to $2.68 billion in the most recent quarter.

The ViacomCBS EyeQ platform, which launched last year as a way to streamline buying, has played a more and more central role in transactions with ad buyers, Ross said. “We’re checking all the boxes that can be checked,” she said.

Over the past pandemic year, Ross says she has focused on continuing the work of absorbing the full breadth of the company’s portfolio. There are parts of the cable and digital realm that she had a lot less visibility on during her time at CBS.

“I inherited this huge, huge family” as a result of the merger, Ross said. Covid hasn’t helped in terms of meeting everyone in person, which Ross says she is endeavoring to do as ViacomCBS troops all start to flow back toward the office this year and sales calls resume.

“I was watching a rough cut” of the upfront presentation, Ross said. “It was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had that, didn’t know we did that.’ I do know all of it, but I don’t know all of it yet.”

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