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Postponed College Football Games Could Disrupt $1 Billion in TV Ads

The postponement of much of the college football season could disrupt the flow of more than $1 billion from advertisers to the television networks that count on a slate of game broadcasts every fall.

The return of the college game — a reliable ratings draw — might have helped the TV industry salvage a year of declining revenues resulting from pandemic-related cancellations and production delays. Now that the Big Ten and the Pacific-12 conferences, two of college football’s five powerhouse leagues, have pushed back their seasons amid concerns about the coronavirus, media companies are preparing for more pain.

Many players and school administrators, and even President Trump, had lobbied against the postponement, which could have financial ramifications for teams, campuses and local communities. The punting of the season will also affect the networks that have spent billions to secure broadcast rights, as well as the companies that had planned to spend millions to advertise their products.

“The implications are huge economically,” said Kevin Krim, the chief executive of EDO, a TV ad measurement platform that works with the networks and advertisers. “The cable and broadcast television ecosystem, with advertisers and rights fees and subscriber fees, are heavily anchored to live sports, and the most valuable franchises there are football.”

Last season, college football brought in nearly $1.7 billion in spending on television advertising, according to the research firm Kantar. Companies like Allstate, Chick-fil-A and State Farm each spent more than $30 million to advertise during games, while AT&T spent more than $70 million, Kantar found.

The Walt Disney Company and Fox are among the conglomerates likely to take a hit. More than 27.3 million people watched Louisiana State triumph over Clemson to win the national championship on Jan. 13, a game broadcast by the Disney-owned ESPN. It drew an estimated $91 million in advertising, according to EDO.

For Fox last year, college football was responsible for nearly 6 percent of ad spending and nearly 10 percent of all TV ad impressions, or viewer exposure to ads, according to the ad measurement company iSpot.TV. ESPN drew 9.5 percent of its impressions from the sport. ABC, also owned by Disney, racked up 7.5 percent of its impressions thanks to college football.

ESPN and Fox declined to comment.

The pandemic has left live sports programming “in constant flux, almost on a daily basis,” said Jeremy Carey, the managing director of the sports marketing agency Optimum Sports, and companies and their ad agencies are working to adapt their marketing plans. At risk: more than 300 regular-season national college football broadcasts that would require more than 50 days to watch, Mr. Carey said.

“There’s still a lot of dust in the air, and there may be more left to settle,” he said. “It’s really challenging when you don’t have all the puzzle pieces to paint an exact picture.”

He added that Optimum was having conversations with the leagues, the teams, TV networks and its advertising clients.

“There’s going to be a domino effect here, because if Advertiser X can’t get their dollars into college football, and if they have a specific time frame for messaging, they’re going to have to find those audiences elsewhere,” Mr. Carey said.

Visa, which advertises on pro football broadcasts but not during college games, is monitoring the situation closely, “as it could be an indicator of how the N.F.L. season progresses,” said Mary Ann Reilly, who heads the company’s marketing in North America.

The company is developing contingency plans if pro football is canceled, delayed or cut short, readying itself for the possibility that it will need to shift its spending to other areas, such as digital platforms, Ms. Reilly said.

Advertisers have already been trying to work around delays resulting from pandemic-related shutdowns of TV shows and the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics this summer, said Rich Greenfield, an analyst with LightShed Partners, a media research firm.

“The problems keep piling up,” he said. “The catastrophe for the media industry at large is that not only are college sports in jeopardy, but also there’s really very limited original entertainment programming. So the TV ecosystem is going to be really starved for content to put ads next to.”

The Big 12 college conference said on Wednesday that it planned to hold games starting on Sept. 26. And Fox still plans to air major-league baseball games and pro wrestling in the fall, in addition to National Football League games.

But Mr. Krim, of EDO, said he was worried that shifting sports schedules would lead to an on-air collision of football and basketball games, either this fall in the pros or next spring for colleges, resulting in “a smashed-up overcrowding that we’ve never seen before.”

Without a certain timeline for college football, the fate of the most lucrative games of the season is unclear.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars of value could just evaporate,” Mr. Krim said.

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How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong

Picture this Thanksgiving: turkey, football (maybe), tenser-than-usual interactions with relatives. And perhaps a new tradition: finding out who actually won the presidential election.

The coronavirus crisis means that states like Pennsylvania may be counting mail-in ballots for weeks, while President Trump tweets false allegations about fraud. And the last barriers between American democracy and a deep political crisis may be television news and some version of that maddening needle on The New York Times website.

I spoke last week to executives, TV hosts and election analysts across leading American newsrooms, and I was struck by the blithe confidence among some top managers and hosts, who generally said they’ve handled complicated elections before and can do so again. And I was alarmed by the near panic among some of the people paying the closest attention — the analysts and producers trying, and often failing, to get answers from state election officials about how and when they will count the ballots and report results.

“The nerds are freaking out,” said Brandon Finnigan, the founder of Decision Desk HQ, which delivers election results to media outlets. “I don’t think it’s penetrated enough in the average viewer’s mind that there’s not going to be an election night. The usual razzmatazz of a panel sitting around discussing election results — that’s dead,” he said.

The changes the media faces are profound, with technical and political dimensions.

First, there’s already a shift underway from a single-day, in-person election. In the 2018 midterms, only 60 percent of the votes were cast in person on Election Day. More votes will probably be sent in this year by mail or cast in September and October. That risks coverage misfires: In 2018, cable news commentators spent election night suggesting that the “blue wave” hadn’t arrived. But they were simply impatient: The Democratic surge showed up when the final California races were called weeks later. If the 2016 election had been conducted amid the expected surge in mail-in voting because of the coronavirus crisis, the Pennsylvania results might not have been counted until Thanksgiving.

Then, there’s the continuing Trump-era political crisis, often driven on Twitter and Facebook. President Trump last Thursday again sought to call mail-in voting into question with false claims about fraud. If you want a glimpse of how this could play out in November, look to 2018, when Mr. Trump tweeted the suggestion, “Call for a new election?” when the Republican nominee for Senate in Arizona fell behind as mail ballots were counted.

These are hard challenges. The media specializes in fighting the last war, and has done a decent job this cycle of avoiding the mistakes of 2016. Reporters are calling out Mr. Trump’s falsehoods, showing skepticism about polls and avoiding turning politics into a sport.

But the American media plays a bizarrely outsize role in American elections, occupying the place of most countries’ national election commissions.

Here, the media actually assembles the results from 50 states, tabulates them and declares a victor. And — we can’t really help ourselves — the media establishes the narrative to explain what happened. That task was most memorably mishandled in 2000, when inaccurate calls that George W. Bush had won Florida led to a wild retraction by Vice President Al Gore of the concession he had offered to Mr. Bush earlier that evening, followed by weeks of uncertainty.

The flashy graphics and sober, confident hosts embody a long tradition of television flimflam. When CBS invented the election night tradition of dramatic vote projections and official calls in 1952, it outfitted its set with a blinking, Remington Rand Univac computer. The blinking device made for a good show. But the computer was a prop, a fake, as the historian Jill Lepore noted in her podcast, The Last Archive.

The TV presentation is always slick, but the underpinnings of county-by-county electoral systems are baroque and antiquated. And the pandemic means more people will vote by mail this year, in states with little experience processing those votes.

“There’s a lot of planning for the whiz-bang graphics, and not enough planning for avoiding undermining trust in the American electoral system,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist and one of the authors of an April report on how to run a fair election during the pandemic. “It’s not going to be great TV, it might not be viral content, but it’s the truth.”

Some particularly wonky journalists are trying to lay the groundwork. NBC’s Chuck Todd said in June that he has been having “major nightmares” about the election, and his First Read newsletter has been referring to “election week” instead of Election Day.

But at the highest levels of most news organizations and the big social media platforms, executives and insiders told me that it simply hasn’t sunk in how different this year is going to be — and how to prepare audiences for it.

Though the hosts and news executives I talked to all take preparations seriously, many seemed to be preparing for this election as they have for others in the past, and some waved off my alarmism.

“We don’t want to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of chaos and confusion or suggest somehow that that’s a preordained outcome,” said the president of NBC News, Noah Oppenheim.

Mr. Oppenheim’s optimism is a bit hard to justify. The April report on running a fair election offers two recommendations for the media, which it’s mostly been ignoring. First, undertake an intense campaign to explain to voters how the process will actually work this year. And second, teach the public patience.

That’s not the media’s instinct. CNN did the opposite this February, when the Iowa caucuses were slow to report results and the network put on a “count-up” clock, impatiently tapping its foot for a result and signaling that there’s something wrong with a slow, careful count.

Another, smaller but important change that many political types suggest: Get rid of the misleading “percent of precincts reporting” measure. In states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, it would be easy to have 100 percent of precincts reporting their Election Day results — but have mail-in votes piled up in a warehouse, uncounted.

There are some encouraging signs. CNN and The Associated Press, among others, have devoted far more reporting resources than usual to informing audiences just how elections work and to lowering their expectations of quick results. Mr. Oppenheim says NBC is doubling the size of the team that covers election security and misinformation.

“It’s always an unfair standard to expect that kind of movie-like experience on election night,” said David Scott, deputy managing editor at the AP.

And CNN’s Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, and the CBS News elections and surveys director, Anthony Salvanto, both told me they’ve moved away from using the percent of precincts reporting measure.

A top Times editor, Steve Duenes, said The Times was considering alternatives to the single, predictive needle that offered readers false confidence in 2016, and is looking at a “range of tools.”

But what the moment calls for, most of all, is patience. And good luck with that.

Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations — rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites — that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

The Republican secretary of state of Ohio, Frank LaRose, said he hoped that the time spent waiting for results could become a kind of civics lesson, with footage of volunteers feeding ballots into machines. Alex Padilla, the Democratic California secretary of state, suggested that television companies look to a Hollywood model: “You can’t think of Election Day as a single movie — you have to treat it as maybe a trilogy,” he said.

He didn’t say which movie.

But conveniently, a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project actually gamed four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania. For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.

But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.

In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.

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Even Fox News Balks at Trump’s Coronavirus Disinfectant Advice

Even Steve Doocy had to admit it wasn’t a great idea.

The morning after President Trump mused at a nationally televised briefing that injecting disinfectant could be a treatment for Covid-19 patients, Mr. Doocy, a co-host of “Fox & Friends,” issued a warning to his Fox News viewers.

Injecting disinfectants “is poisonous,” Mr. Doocy said, holding up his hands for emphasis, during an otherwise upbeat segment that praised Mr. Trump for his other health tip: Get more sunlight. (The guest, Dr. Mehmet Oz, did not address the disinfectant idea.)

It was a rare fissure between the president and “Fox & Friends,” a show that regularly praises him. But Mr. Doocy was not the only Fox personality who was unimpressed by the notion that Americans would consider the internal use of disinfectant, which can result in serious injury and death.

“Please don’t try this at home,” said the Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney, one of Mr. Trump’s favorite hosts. The anchor Chris Wallace — not a Trump favorite — felt the need to clarify on-air: “The answer is no, it’s not safe. A lot of the major manufacturers say it isn’t.”

When Mr. Trump made an effort to walk back his remarks on Friday, claiming to reporters at the White House that he had made the comment “sarcastically,” John Roberts, Fox News’s chief White House correspondent, did not sound convinced.

“I was watching very closely,” Mr. Roberts, who attended the briefing, said on the air. “At no time did I seem to think that the president was sarcastically asking the question.”

Bret Baier, Fox News’s chief political anchor, also had a skeptical take. “No one at home thinks, ‘Oh, you know what? I’m going to go drink bleach,’” Mr. Baier said, adding, after a pause, “I don’t think.”

“But it is something that he clearly stepped in here,” Mr. Baier added.

Still, Mr. Trump’s defenders in Fox News prime time, the channel’s most closely watched portion of day, sidestepped the matter entirely on Thursday.

If the president — who obsessively monitors his news coverage — was seeking backup, he could have turned to his other preferred media outlets, where his idea for an unorthodox remedy was not so much excused as deemed not to exist.

“The drive-by media is attempting to persuade and convince people that Donald Trump told people to drink Drano at the White House press briefing,” the radio host Rush Limbaugh said dismissively on his Friday show. “That Donald Trump told people to go out and get a syringe and inject Clorox in their arms, and that this could be dangerous.”

Here is what Mr. Trump said at Thursday’s briefing: “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”

Joel B. Pollak, the senior editor at large at Breitbart News, wrote about that statement in a column that ran under the headline “Fact Check: No, Trump Didn’t Propose Injecting People With Disinfectant.”

“Trump used the word ‘inject,’ but what he meant was using a process — which he left ‘medical doctors’ to define — in which patients’ lungs might be cleared of the virus,” Mr. Pollak wrote. (Breitbart later retracted its “fact check” headline, saying the column “should have been framed as an opinion piece.”)

The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, issued a statement on Friday accusing the news media of taking Mr. Trump’s words “out of context.” That was before Mr. Trump claimed that he had spoken “sarcastically,” to get a rise out of journalists.

Neil Cavuto, a Fox host who has been critical of Mr. Trump, was not impressed with that excuse. “I think it’s important on the president to say and come out unequivocally: ‘Some of you took me seriously, even though I sounded serious saying it. Please do not. Please do not even consider injecting some of this stuff into your system,’” Mr. Cavuto said during a Friday appearance on Fox Business.

It was not the first time that Mr. Trump has offered medical advice on how to combat the virus. For weeks, he touted the use of a malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, from behind a lectern with the presidential seal.

The drug also had champions on Fox News, particularly Laura Ingraham, one of the network’s prime-time stars, who has relentlessly promoted the drug on her program as a potential cure for the coronavirus. Ms. Ingraham went as far as to meet with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office to pitch him on the medicine.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued a formal warning against the use of hydroxychloroquine in treating the virus, citing a risk of serious heart rhythm problems. The agency urged that the drug be taken only in a clinical trial or under close supervision in a hospital.

Ms. Ingraham devoted a lengthy segment of her Wednesday program to dismissing the results of a study of Veterans Affairs patients showing that the use of hydroxychloroquine was associated with an increased risk of death. She criticized “this blind obsession to disprove the effectiveness of a drug that is being used right now, tonight, in medical centers across America.”

On Friday, after the F.D.A. issued its warning, Ms. Ingraham retweeted several online articles extolling the use of hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment.

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2020 Super Bowl Commercials: Funeral for Mr. Peanut, Tears for Google

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Credit…Sabra; Snickers; TurboTax; Bud Light

An audience expected to be around 100 million. Big companies paying as much as $5.6 million for 30 seconds of advertising time. In addition to deciding the National Football League champion, the Super Bowl is the biggest event of the year for TV commercials.

The commercials on Sunday were mostly light and bright.

Nostalgia was a big theme, with companies marketing their products with ads that showed love for the ’80s and ’90s.

Cheetos had the rapper MC Hammer and his zoot-suit-inspired pants in an ad about the orange dust the snack leaves in its wake. Squarespace sent Winona Ryder, the Gen X star who has made a comeback thanks to Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” to Winona, Minn., where she was born.

Bill Murray, with a sidekick from the rodent family, relived the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day” for Jeep, and Mountain Dew Zero riffed on the 1980 film “The Shining” with an assist from the “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston. A commercial for Avocados From Mexico featured Molly Ringwald, the star of “Pretty in Pink” and other ’80s comedies.

The nostalgia mixed with sentimentality. And several heartfelt commercials, from companies like New York Life Insurance and WeatherTech, seemed to have left the deepest impression on viewers. A spot from Google — about the 85-year-old grandfather of a Google employee searching for ways to remember his partner, Loretta — inspired a flood of “I’m not crying, you’re crying” social media posts.

“The ads that people remember most over time are the simplest ads with human stories, and that was missing for the most part,” said the longtime ad executive Donny Deutsch.

Much of the game-day advertising, he said, “was a manic, overproduced celebrity cornucopia, to the point that some of these ads didn’t mean anything and you didn’t really remember who was with who.”

The New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady spent this Super Bowl as a Hulu spokesman, saying in a commercial for the streaming service that “it’s time to say goodbye to TV as you know it” before slyly adding, “but me, I’m not going anywhere.”

An ad from the short-form streaming service Quibi, featuring bank robbers who pause to watch a quick show on their phone screens, made one thing clear: how to pronounce “Quibi.” (It’s kwi-bee, not kwee-bee.) Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus also plugged their offerings.

In other Super Bowl ads, Verizon, Bud Light and other companies emphasized — and celebrated — what Americans have in common beneath their differences. Don’t we all complain about the same things? Don’t we all defy cultural stereotypes? And don’t we all love hummus?

Those were some of the messages that figured in the sunny portrait of a nation that emerged from 80-plus commercials during the Super Bowl LIV broadcast.

“We’re at a moment in the country where it’s important that we all contribute to things that unite as opposed to things that separate,” said Diego Scotti, the chief marketing officer of Verizon.

Sabra cast two former contestants from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Kim Chi and Miz Cracker, making it possibly the first Super Bowl commercial to feature drag queens. One Million Moms, a conservative activist group that recently pushed the Hallmark Channel to pull ads featuring brides kissing each other, circulated a petition demanding that the Sabra spot be removed, to no avail.

Companies are also slipping into other companies’ commercials. Pringles paired up with the animated Adult Swim series “Rick and Morty” for an ad filled with horrifying child robots. Tide, which overran the Super Bowl 2018 with crossover commercials, teamed this year with Bud Light, the upcoming film “Wonder Woman 1984” and the Fox show “The Masked Singer.” Pop-Tarts, which featured the flowing hair of Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye” in its commercial, called out Hyundai’s Boston-accented spot “Smaht Pahk” by posting on Twitter: “Pahp-Tahts.”

The first of two 30-second ads from President Trump’s campaign, which together cost more than $11 million, aired in the first commercial break after kickoff. The spot focused on Alice Marie Johnson, a woman who was serving a life sentence in federal prison on charges related to cocaine distribution and money laundering when her case was brought to Mr. Trump’s attention by Kim Kardashian West, the reality television star. Mr. Trump commuted Ms. Johnson’s sentence in 2018.

It was the first Super Bowl to feature national ads from two presidential candidates, and the political tone of the ads stood out in a broadcast filled with companies trying to avoid sensitive topics the day before the Democratic caucuses in Iowa.

Before the second-half kickoff, the billionaire presidential candidate Michael R. Bloomberg presented an ad about gun control that featured Calandrian Simpson-Kemp, whose football-loving son died in a shooting in 2013. Mr. Bloomberg has swarmed the Democratic field with over $275 million in advertising, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. This was not his first Super Bowl commercial touching on gun laws — he did the same in a 2012 ad with Thomas M. Menino, then the mayor of Boston.

Another exception to the escapist fare was a spot on police shootings. Surprisingly, it came from an organization that has shied away from the issue: the National Football League. The spot showed the retired 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin reflecting on the 2015 death of his cousin, who was shot by a police officer, and it included a dramatic re-enactment of the killing.

The commercial promoted the N.F.L.’s Inspire Change initiative, a social outreach program that the league has put together with Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by Jay-Z. Colin Kaepernick — Mr. Boldin’s onetime 49ers teammate — set off an uproar a year after the killing by kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. The N.F.L. struggled with its response for years.

After days of hype, Planters ran a commercial showing the funeral of its monocled mascot, Mr. Peanut. Other brand avatars stood at the grave site, including the Kool-Aid Man and Mr. Clean. After the Kool-Aid Man shed a tear, something sprouted in the dirt. It was a baby version of Mr. Peanut, squeaking like a dolphin and saying, “Just kidding, I’m back.” The reaction on social media was not kind.

The great majority of Super Bowl LIV spots were jaunty and optimistic, lightening the mood with what Matt Ian, the chief creative officer of the McGarryBowen agency in New York, called “some wonderful dumbness.”

TurboTax had a commercial involving people of many races, genders, ages and walks of life dancing to a bounce-inflected earworm of a jingle, “All People Are Tax People.”

The mood continued the trend toward tonally light commercials that came to the fore in 2018. In 2017, the first year of President Trump’s administration, Budweiser and Coca-Cola, among other brands, touched on immigration, equal rights and fair pay.

Martin Scorsese, who is nominated for an Oscar this year for “The Irishman,” was also involved in a Super Bowl commercial, but not behind the camera. Instead, he appeared in an ad from Coca-Cola, waiting anxiously at a party for Jonah Hill, whom he had directed in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” to muster enough energy to join him. Mr. Hill, who was cast first, suggested Mr. Scorsese when the company asked him to recommend someone to play the out-of-place friend.

While many ads looked to the past for inspiration, Walmart and others were fixated on the cosmos. Olay alluded to the first all-female spacewalk last year in an ad featuring Lilly Singh and Busy Philipps with the retired astronaut Nicole Stott. A spot from the home carbonation company SodaStream, with Bill Nye, showed astronauts finding water on Mars.

The tech sector had several firsts: Facebook debuted at the Super Bowl with an ad that included a cameo appearance by Chris Rock and the “Rocky” actor Sylvester Stallone. Microsoft’s ad features Katie Sowers, the San Francisco 49ers assistant coach who was the first woman and openly gay person to help lead a team to the big game.

But awareness of Super Bowl ads — which tend to take months to plan — generally peaks two weeks after game day, according to the research firm YouGov. Half an hour after the game ended, none of the ads were among the top 10 trending topics on Twitter.

In the coming months, the Super Bowl commercials that were rolled out with so much hype will dissolve into the general advertising atmosphere, appearing in the act breaks of sitcoms, police procedurals and reality shows, most likely all but unnoticed.