Rogers announces last-minute cancellation of upfront presentation

Rogers Media is foregoing one of advertising’s annual rites of spring, with a surprise announcement that it will not hold its annual “upfront” event for media buyers and advertisers scheduled for June 4.

Rogers, which operates Citytv and the specialty services Sportsnet, FX Canada and OMNI Television, announced what it described as a “difficult, but fiscally responsible,” decision on Thursday.

In a statement, Rogers said that it would instead focus on more “intimate” and “customized agency presentations” for broadcast buyers. “These intimate events with agencies allow us to better understand clients’ unique needs and deliver creative solutions to meet those needs,” it reads.

Rogers said the upfronts have become a “one-way conversation” over the years, and that its new approach is specifically designed to foster improved dialogue with advertising clients.

Media buyers contacted by The Message were surprised to hear of the late cancellation, but understand the company’s reasoning. Mindshare Canada’s chief investment officer Lina Alles said it’s a “good call to cut back in these tough times,” and chief strategy officer Sarah Thompson noted that “flashy upfronts aren’t required to sell the content. It should stand on its own.”

Rogers has been attempting to “work around” the upfront for years, said Cairnsoneil principal Sherry O’Neil. “I think [cancelling the event] is okay, but they need to do something to thank their customers and stay top of mind.”

Broadcasters have tinkered with their upfront presentations in recent years, with both Rogers and Corus Entertainment attempting smaller, scaled-back presentations. The bigger shock, said one unnamed buyer, is that Rogers sent out a save-the-date invitation before abruptly cancelling the event less than four weeks out.

The upfronts have long been marquee events on the spring marketing calendar, with broadcasters showing off their new program acquisitions to advertisers and media buyers in the hope they’ll commit to investing millions of dollars for the new TV season.

They’ve been a fixture on the advertising calendar ever since U.S. network ABC introduced the concept in 1962 as a means of gauging advertiser interest in its new programming.

They have grown increasingly elaborate—and costly—over the next 50-plus years, with U.S. events held at historic venues like Radio City Music Hall and Lincoln Centre, and featuring appearances by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Dolly Parton and Jimmy Kimmel.

Canadian upfronts have also featured their share of star power over the years, with prior events featuring cast members from The Sopranos and Drake (that was 2001, when he was one of the stars of CTV’s Degrassi High reboot Degrassi: The Next Generation).

There was also the Global Television upfront presentation a few years back when Donald Trump appeared by video to make a huuuuge pitch for a new season of his reality show The Apprentice.

It’s unclear what kind of cost savings scrapping the upfront will produce for Rogers, which, like other broadcasters, is facing revenue challenges brought about by changing media consumption and advertisers shifting more of their dollars to digital and social networks.

Upfronts are typically lavish affairs, however, with one insider telling The Message that it’s not uncommon for a broadcaster to spend as much as $800,000 to stage an event for 1,000 people.

Broadcasters are actively looking to cut costs. Bell Media-owned CTV announced a series of layoffs at stations across the country just this week, while other broadcasters—including Rogers—have shed staff in an attempt to compensate for stagnant revenue growth.

And after signing a massive 12-year, $5.3 billion rights deal with the NHL in 2013, Rogers is suffering through yet another spring in which no Canadian NHL team—including ratings juggernaut the Toronto Maple Leafs—advanced beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But one buyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it’s unlikely that cancelling the upfront has anything to do with hockey, particularly as Rogers has been making strides in the quality of its programming acquisitions.”Rogers has spent the money and made the effort to close that gap [with Corus],”  he told The Message. “They’ve acquired a lot of bigger shows, so the surprise to me is that [the decision comes] at a time when the gap between Corus and them is the smallest it’s ever been.”

Rogers’ decision isn’t entirely without precedent, however, as U.S. broadcasters including Viacom, Discovery Communications, A+E Networks and AMC Networks have all done away with splashy events in recent years.

Canada’s other major English-language broadcast groups all appear to be moving forward with their upfront events. CBC announced on Thursday that its annual upfront event is scheduled for May 29, while Corus Entertainment will hold its event at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works on June 3, followed by CTV—whose events have traditionally been high on star power and pizzazz— on June 6.

“There have been a couple of attempts at trying to buck the trend of the big New York-style upfront, but I think you’d have a lot more people up in arms about what was going on if [CTV] cancelled theirs,” said the anonymous buyer.

But another senior buyer contacted by The Message questioned whether upfront presentations still possess the ability to influence media buyers to spend more of their clients’ dollars with a network.

At the same time, she said vendors will cry poor only to host events at upscale venues like Toronto’s Jacob’s Steakhouse, where prices range all the way up to an eye-popping $1,100 for a 20-ounce A5Kobe Black Tajima ribeye from Japan.

The question for Rogers now is can it sell the steak without the sizzle.


Chris Powell