The 2020 upfronts were already shaping up to be unpredictable, given COVID-driven uncertainties around content availability and changes in viewing patterns, and now Procter & Gamble has added another twist, as it’s reported to be striking deals direct with networks.

According to Ad Age, citing “multiple buyers and sellers familiar with conversations”, the FMCG giant is “moving ahead of its media buying agencies and going directly to TV network sellers to commit ad dollars in the upfronts” for the 2020-21 TV season.

As the title notes, it’s an unusual move for an individual company, since agencies aim to leverage the buying power of all their clients to get the best deal. But these are not normal times and a business with the spending power of P&G – which declined to comment on the reports – could surely drive a hard bargain.

Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard has been critical of the upfronts which he described last month as “an antiquated business system that needs reform”. Not least of his beefs is that the once-a-year process takes no account of the fact that “most companies are operating on a very real-time basis”.

Earlier this year, one analyst suggested that only 40% to 60% of total inventory would be sold at this year’s upfronts, compared to the more usual 70% to 80%, as buyers turn instead to the near-term scatter market.

The reasons aren’t hard to find, with TV production schedules up in the air and continued uncertainty over live sport.

The MLB season has started, but with at least 14 members of the Miami Marlins testing positive for the coronavirus, games are already being cancelled. According to Axios, if the season is cancelled, networks could lose $587 million in national TV adspend. Meanwhile, the NFL announced on Monday there will be no pre-season games, raising concerns over the future of the season itself.

Another consideration for buyers is how the pandemic has changed viewing patterns, reversing a decline in linear TV viewership but further boosting the streaming market.

Fraser Woollard, SVP business development at Mediaocean, also makes the point that buyers need to transact agnostically on audiences, not screens.

“CNN pushes the same content on CNN TV and its CNN Go app, but word in the industry is that the average CNN TV viewer is about 67 years old, while the average CNN Go App viewer is around 38,” he observed writing for Ad Exchanger recently.

“That means that it makes no sense to buy the content but ignore the outlet.”

Sourced from Ad Age, MediaPost, Axios, Ad Exchanger; additional content by WARC staff