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As ‘Kids’ Upfront’ Kicks Off, Disney Woos Madison Avenue

Variety logo Variety 2/28/2017 Brian Steinberg
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Disney is hoping to find new reason for Sofia the First and K.C. Cooper to smile: The company anticipates healthy demand for advertising as the TV industry ushers in the earliest part of the annual ad-sales ritual known as the “upfront” that focuses on the medium’s youngest viewers.

“We are optimistic it’s going to be a strong marketplace,” said Rita Ferro, president of ad sales for the company’s Disney ABC Television, which encompasses ABC, Freeform and a suite of kids-focused cable networks.  The kids-TV market – valued at approximately $800 million in advance advertising commitments from Madison Avenue – gets underway this week, with presentations expectd from Disney as well as Viacom’s Nickelodeon. Early indicators from toy manufacturers and movie studios looks strong, added Ferro, in an interview.

The question for most TV networks will be whether they can surpass last year’s results. In 2016’s market, Disney’s kids’ properties – which include Disney Channel, Disney Junior and Disney XD, and Radio Disney, among other properties, saw their combined volume of advance ad commitments rise by 20%.  As younger viewers flock to new mobile screens, however, Ferro acknowledges that finding new ways to portray viewership has become critical. “How can we count every impression?” she noted.

To reassure advertisers, Disney is relying on a spate of programming that burnishes familiar figures and storylines in revamped settings. A new “Muppet Babies” is coming to Disney Junior, for instance. The company has already given a second-season nod to a TV-series work-up of its popular animated “Tangled” movie. A relaunched “Duck Tales” and a TV version of “Big Hero 6” are coming to Disney XD.

There’s room for new content, of course. Disney Channel will this Spring launch “Andi Mack,” a coming-of-age live-action series from the writer and executive producer of the hit show “Lizzie McGuire.” A sequel to “Descendants” is also in the works, with a sponsor in tow: Best Western. The motel chain will be involved in a sweepstakes that gives participants a chance to win a themed makeover and meet actors Sofia Carson and Cameron Boyce.

“We know what resonates with kids and families, when brands are placing bigger bets to have more impact in a bifurcated marketplace,” Ferro said.

The company will burnish new technologies as well. “Disney Now,” launching later this year, will place all content from Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD and Radio Disney, each currently housed in separate apps, under a single unified app, making a wider array of content available to users.

The kids’ market is typically dominated by Viacom’s Nickelodeon and Time Warner’s Cartoon Network, and Disney relies more heavily on sponsorships than traditional ads, making it a smaller player in the process. Nickelodeon has made good linear viewership strides year over year among kids between 2 and 11, as of late-February, according to Nielsen. Disney will go to market with measures that take into account linear viewing, video on demand and social use, among other metrics.

In 2016, Viacom saw the volume of advance ad commitments for its kids’ programming rise about 5%, according to a person familiar with the situation. Time Warner’s Turner, operator of Cartoon Network, anticipated a volume increase of 2% to 4% for its overall portfolio, according to a person familiar with negotiations.

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