Upfront 2010: Quick, Easy, Over


It's Quincy M.E. time on Madison Avenue, that postmortem period where we weigh and catalogue the upfront's vital organs and try to divine meaning from the entrails.

Given the speed and relative lack of discord that colored this year's deal making, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the inquest might be a little light on discovery, one of those episodes where Jack Klugman spent most of the hour throwing back beers at Danny's Place.

While there's still some final mopping up to do in the pathology lab, the larger truths of the 2010-11 upfront are in plain view on the slab. If this year's market is indicative of anything, it's that advertisers really don't like paying 30 percent premiums for scatter time, and that as a result of this understandable aversion, a good deal of money that normally would have been reserved for scatter buys next season was moved into the upfront.

Media buyers estimate that close to three-quarters of new upfront money was pulled out of scatter reserves, a monetary shift designed to prevent clients from having to cough up the double-digit increases networks are likely to command for buying spots in-season. (Sellers suggest this figure is a rhetorical flourish designed to undermine the strength of the market. "Sure, we took scatter money in the upfront, and we booked that money at scatter rates," said one ad sales executive. "But we also saw upfront clients who wanted to make bigger investments than they did a year ago, and those extra dollars were priced on a tier. That this is all a matter of scatter moving into the upfront is nonsense.")

While total upfront volume is estimated to be nearly 20 percent higher than 2009-10 -- adding up to some $8.3 billion for broadcast prime time, $7.9 billion in cable commitments and another $2.4 billion for syndication -- full-year expenditures are likely to be up by only a few percentage points.

"There's definitely growth," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at WPP's GroupM. "But when you add it all together, we're probably looking at 3 percent overall organic growth, all in, for 2010," he said of national TV ad expenditures. "Cable will be a little north of that, broadcast a little south."

The good news is that marketers are spending more freely this year. Autos are back in a big way and will likely invest a "couple hundred million" more on advertising this year than they did in '09, per Scanzoni.

Before the upfront had even begun, auto had already held its ground as the most media-friendly category, as manufacturers and dealers revved up their first-quarter ad spend by 18.6 percent to $3.02 billion, per Kantar Media analysis.

Naturally, the big gains were also a function of the debased 2009-10 market. "Advertising is flattening out in national television," said Tim Spengler, president of Initiative USA. "The upfront was up 17 percent? Great. Last year it was off 15 percent."

The year immediately following a recession is almost always marked by a particularly robust upfront market. For example, on the heels of the 2001 downturn, the Big Four turned around and notched a 20.9 percent increase in upfront commitments pegged to the 2002-03 season. At the time, the haul was the second richest in history, trailing only the prebust 2000-01 bazaar.

On the morning of May 19, David Levy called his shot from the front seat of a Lincoln Town Car. En route to his network group's post-upfront presentation luncheon, the president of sales, distribution and sports, Turner Broadcasting System said he would look to strike broadcast-parity CPMs with TBS' newest attraction, Conan O'Brien. By all accounts, he did precisely that.

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