NEW YORK If nothing else, the 2009-10 upfront will be remembered as a marathon game of liar's poker, a bluffer's marketplace governed by the twin dictates of fear and paranoia. A preoccupation with controlling the flow of information inadvertently put the freeze on any early bidding, and with two months having elapsed since the game got under way, only a fraction of business has been completed.
According to sources on both sides of the table, advertisers have locked up an estimated 25 percent of the broadcast and cable TV inventory on offer in this year’s upfront, at aggregate cost-per-thousand declines that are nowhere near the double-digit rollbacks agencies had targeted back in June. Conversely, networks also gave up some ground, not achieving the initial single-digit increases they had been seeking at the outset. Some broadcasters are further along than others; sources indicate that both NBC and Fox are now about halfway to the finish, while ABC, CBS and The CW have all begun writing deals.
Cable is moving on a parallel track, as a number of top-tier network groups have written between 20 percent and 25 percent of their business.
While media agencies have demanded that networks and clients all but take an oath of omertà -- some shops have gone so far as to request that their partners sign nondisclosure agreements upon completion of their deal-making -- there is consensus as to how pricing is shaking out. Sources peg broadcasters to be securing CPMs between -3 percent and -5 percent, with CBS landing the most advantageous numbers.
"CBS had their corporate leadership publicly stating they weren't going to go negative in the upfront, and they've been the toughest to get into negative territory," said one media agency executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Sources estimate that CBS is writing CPM declines in the low single digits, between -1 and -3 percent.
Fox and ABC are dwelling in the same neighborhood, writing low-single-digit negatives. Both nets are expected to hold back a good deal of inventory for scatter. Analysts predict they'll keep between 25 percent and 30 percent of their commercial time off the table, up from around 15 percent a year ago -- although Fox has the latitude to play it closer to the vest.
"They just have so much less to sell that, out of everyone, they are most willing to take chances in scatter. It's less of a risk for them," said one media buyer. "They are very confident about their ability to garner premiums in scatter, so they don't feel like they need to lower their upfront price [by that much]."
Meanwhile, NBC is believed to be agreeing to rollbacks of 7 percent for many of its deals. The network made the first major move of the upfront, closing a deal with GroupM a few weeks ago. (As of Friday, NBC continued to deny that an agreement had been nailed down, going so far as to refute a recent public statement made by Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment. Speaking at Fortune magazine's Brainstorm: Tech conference on Wednesday, Silverman indicated that the NBCU-GroupM deal had closed, which NBC denied shortly afterwards.)
While NBC would not confirm its pricing, a source familiar with the network's ongoing negotiations said deals were being nailed down at low- to mid-single-digit percentage rollbacks. That particular estimate covers all broadcast dayparts, not just prime time.
Still, buyers insist that negative 7s are the coin of the realm. "That is the standard number. There are ways to do a little bit better if you play with the ratio between what they're getting for Leno and the rest of prime time," one said.
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