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Taming the Beast

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Why do we love the upfront? Because it's business by mob rule. Frat-party buying. The corporate equivalent of taking Ecstasy at a frenzied rave.

For at least 20 years, the crazed hot-weather weeks (and sometimes days) when the bulk of network TV time for the next year is bought and sold has been advertising's Satyricon—commerce the way Fellini would have filmed it.

It's an intense, colorful, garish, disjointed rush of pure energy, fueled by adrenaline, flared-nostril brink manship and bad take-out food in the wee hours of the morning.

The upfront. What a concept.

Imagine if we bought everything this way?

The supermarket upfront, for example. "Hello, Jon? Listen, I just spoke to a rep at Gristedes. Cantaloupes are starting to move! Aisle five. But if we want the ripe ones, we gotta buy a pound of prunes."

Or the dentist upfront: "Dr. Karmazin, head of the largest dental-care group in the country, told a medical convention in the Cayman Islands this week that if patients won't meet last year's prices for root canals, they can all eat oatmeal for a year."

It wouldn't be a pretty place. But it would be entertaining as hell.

The approach of the 2001-02 upfront generated the usual tingly anticipation of vicarious thrill among observers. Sure, this year was supposed to be much slower than usual, but very bloody, which is even better than colorful.

It's a buyer's market for the first time in a decade or more, so agencies and advertisers are strutting around. The networks, whose flair for denial and deviousness is at least as great as that of buyers, are posturing like mad in the press, declaring they won't cut "negative" deals that come in under last year's record fleecing.

Still, not much blood has been shed yet, probably because it's taking so long to boil this year. While the upfront has finally started to move, we've seen none of the usual lemming-esque leaps over the edge—at least not as of this writing.

Broadcast mavens are attending parties and Broadway shows (on the media's dime, of course) and strolling around Manhattan like they're print buyers or something. That, of course, reassures each of them that the others aren't locked in an office somewhere cutting a deal with a network.

What we're seeing is an extraordinary novelty: a civilized upfront.

"Very orderly," says one buyer in amazement. "Everybody's home at 5. There's none of that Chinese food at 4 in the morning crap."

Given the luxury of time, though, some advertisers are playing hide-and-seek. They negotiate a deal, then suddenly "discover" they don't have $20 million to spend. They've got $30 million. Let's renegotiate!

Needless to say, this is not going over well on the seller side. Agency buyers are also frustrated. "There are benefits to rushing around in a limited amount of time," says one veteran. "You've got to get very specific because advertisers have to put their budgets out."

So, blood could yet flow. Let's hope the economy picks up next year so we can get our good old Wild West upfront back.

This civilized stuff is boring.