Win or Go Home

Are you ready? I am so ready. The most satisfying spectator sport of the year is upon us, and I am prepped, pumped and ready to rumble.

Here they come: the marathon overtimes, the quick scores, the Cinderella stories, the media frenzies, the heated controversies, the little guys coming up big and the big guys shooting airballs.

The upfront is almost here.

I’ve cleared my calendar (having a life is overrated, anyway). Told my editor not to expect any copy for a while. The fridge is stocked with all the major food groups: frozen beef burritos, double-chocolate-chip muffins, sweet Maui onion potato chips and the five-liter box of Gallo white zinfandel.

I’m set to spectate.

But wait. What’s that dark cloud gathering above Smith & Wollensky?

For the first time since the upfront was thought up some 30 years ago, there’s a real threat to broadcast’s annual best-buy battle royal. In an unprecedented move, the folks at the ANA have set up a formal committee to address the issue. If they succeed, the glorious madness that is the upfront could be gone forever. They’re even talking about moving it back from May to as late as September.

Oh, the horror!

No, we can’t have that. The lunatic logic of the upfront—we deliver less and less, you pay more and more—is its charm. Sure, it’s serious business to clients and their agents. But to the rest of us—those of us who worry about our jobs, our safety and our survival in a chaos-theory world where a religious nut wrapped in rags and living like an animal in a mountain cave can topple a government in Spain—it’s a vastly satisfying and much-needed diversion.

So I propose a compromise. Don’t do away with the upfront or tinker with the timing. Instead, turn it into a single-elimination contest. Just like the NCAA basketball tournament.

May Madness.

Those of us who watch would give up the joy of seeing lunatic logic in frantic action. Those of you who buy and sell would give up your foolish notions of ever negotiating these transactions in a civilized manner. And yet the joy of competition would be undiminished.

Buyers would be grouped into brackets and seeded by strength of client roster, quality of competition and silliest name. (What is a MindShare anyhow, and why should the word have two capital letters? And why would someone choose a name for their company that is doomed to be mispronounced “carrot” by everybody?)

Sellers would be ranked by strength of advertiser lineup, ratings and how imaginative their excuses for their failings are. (“Our programming doesn’t stink, Nielsen does.” “We had nothing to do with the halftime show, honest.”)

Then each side plays the other.

No more of this consolidated, equal-playing-field nonsense. In May Madness, every medium plays, not just network TV, ensuring intriguing matchups everywhere.

You got your No. 1 seed, Magna Global, playing the No. 16 seed, Country Gazette magazine. “Cella moves right, then left. Oh, a crossover dribble and he posterizes the rep!”

You’d have your unbelievable performances (“Muszynski is en fuego, ladies and gentlemen”), your controversy (“Spengler has a point, Dick. That shot should not count. Uh-oh, he’s bumped the ref. And Spengler’s thrown out of the game!”) and, of course, your incredible finishes (“Mandel heaves a desperation three. The ball hits the rim. Oh, and it trickles out! Unbelievable! Upset city, baby! The Golf Channel advances to Round Two”).

No matter how well they play, however, the buyers would never win. That’s because the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even the upfront.

As Marv Albert would say, “Yes, and it counts!”