Talk of Upfronts Has to Wait

Ask just about any media buyer how they think the 2009-10 national TV upfront marketplace will shake out and you’ll likely get a response like former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora as he appears in that Coors Light press conference mash-up: “Upfronts!? Don’t talk about upfronts. Are you kidding me? Upfronts??”

Given the state of the first-quarter scatter market, media buyers are locked in on the present, handling an ever-increasing load of last-minute business. Their network ad sales counterparts are doing whatever they can to keep clients from getting skittish, to the extent that broadcasters have pushed the January deadline for second-quarter upfront options back to mid-February.

“I think they’re giving everybody the luxury of time in order to protect themselves,” said Carrie Drinkwater, svp, co-director of national broadcast for MPG. “Forcing events to a head right now is not going to get them the answer they want.”

While on a later schedule than its network counterparts, cable also is amenable to resetting the countdown. Traditionally, the expiration date for second-quarter cable pullbacks is Feb. 1, or 60 days before the year’s first reporting period ends.

As January bleeds away, the two words that seem to alight from nearly every buyer’s lips are “flexibility” and “cooperation.” In fact, the last few years have seen a gradually easing-up on unequivocal deadlines, especially when a legacy client’s commitment is at stake. “Hey, the world has changed. It used to be 90 days and that was it,” said Gary Carr, svp, director of broadcast services at TargetCast tcm. “If the clients need a little time—and there’s so much they have to look at now, who can blame them—the networks give it to them. No sense in ticking anybody off.”

If the networks are inclined to trip the relief valve, they’re drawing the line on pricing. Scatter is moving at or slightly higher than upfront pricing at CBS, which leads the prime-time ratings race with a season-to-date average delivery of just under 11 million viewers and 3.82 million adults 18-49. While the Big Four broadcasters are down 9.83 percent in the demo, CBS is experiencing the least significant slippage, down 5.9 percent among the 18-49 set, per Nielsen ratings data. (Fox and ABC are also securing scatter rates at upfront levels.) That said, volume is down across the board.

CBS’ 2009-10 performance has CEO Les Moonves crowing about the network’s May prospects, although buyers said they are taking any positive upfront prognostications with a grain of salt. Earlier this month, Moonves told investors at a Citigroup media conference that CBS would land higher prices in the coming upfront, although he qualified the statement by adding that it would be premature to quantify those projected increases. “Relatively speaking, we’ll be at the top of the list,” Moonves said. His comments came a month after the CBS capo insisted that the network TV model isn’t in any way compromised or broken.

While CBS is running away with the season’s ratings crown (Fox, however, always does well down the stretch), there are those who would suggest that boasting you’re top dog in the broadcasting arena is a bit like talking up your beer pong prowess at an AA meeting. “Broadcast has become just another stream of programming,” Carr said. “They’re not growing any more, so they can’t afford lavish pilots. More and more we’re seeing this influx of dopier, cheaper shows.”

Cable finds itself in a much more stable position. While analysts see broadcast ad revenue shrinking between 8-10 percent in 2009, cable nets could emerge flat-to-slightly up versus a year ago. “Cable has a lot going for it, ratings are stronger than ever, the efficiency story is still there and the product just keeps getting better,” said Todd Gordon, svp, director of national broadcast, Initiative. “On top of that, you have the precise demo targeting . . . [Cable] offers a lot of options, which adds a lot of vitality to the marketplace.”   

—with Steve McClellan