Haggling Through This Year's Upfronts


Fictitious telephone conversations made in late June:

ABC: We're writing business at -1 percent.
Me: NBC just closed with Agency X at -10 percent. How can you be at -1 percent?
ABC: No, the NBC deal was -7 percent.
Me: That's what was in print, but we heard it was -10 percent.  
ABC: Well, they have so much Leno in there they had to write that number. We have all quality blah, blah, blah.

I hang up and call Fox.

Fox: We will tuck in behind ABC and we hear they're writing at -1 percent, so we're probably at -2 percent. The NBC number was -7 percent.
Me: No, the NBC number was -10 percent.
Fox: We've only got 15 hours per week to sell and we have great freshman hits coming, so we'll hold back more inventory this year for scatter if we don't get our numbers.
Me: Overall dollars are down over 20 percent, so aren't you afraid of writing negatives in scatter?
Fox: We've got American Idol and 24 in 1Q and 2Q, so we'll take our chances and we're stronger in 4Q with House and Fringe doing so well. 

I hang up again and call CBS.

Me: So what's the outlook?
CBS: Les [Moonves] feels the economy is in turnaround mode and we had a great year ratings-wise last year, so now we want to be paid for it.
Me: But the business does not work that way. It's all about supply and demand -- you have more supply and less demand.
CBS: That's not what we're thinking. We will write deals with a positive number.
Me: Good for you, we were planning to cut one network anyhow.


And so the network upfront games kick off, and as our national broadcast team reaches for a Domino's delivery menu for yet another night in a row, the question remains, "Where is this all going?" 

I'm actually a fan of the upfront process. While it has many critics, having worked in several different countries I'm convinced there isn't a better TV-buying model elsewhere. The upfronts provide a marketplace of sellers and buyers who trade access for advertising airtime, offering early commitments for a price. No advertiser is being forced to buy time upfront; in fact, a number of high-profile advertisers will no doubt decline to commit in this year's proceedings. And no network is being forced to sell upfront at a price it doesn't want. If a deal is attractive enough for both sides, then it will happen. 

But the focus on price and, perversely, CPMs as the currency to trade appears to be very dated. This made a lot of sense 30 years ago when the role that TV played was to ensure that advertisers "reached" as many people as possible to generate awareness for their products and services. But reaching people isn't enough for brands competing for attention these days, a fact that underscores the value delivered not just by TV itself, but its content and various platforms that consumers increasingly use.

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