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Media Buyers Warn of TV Ad Downturn

Horizon CEO says upfront success no guide to future

Bill Koenigsberg

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Despite being well on the way to wrapping one of the most lucrative upfront periods in TV history, media buyers are seeing signs that the ad boom may not be long for this world.

Speaking on a panel at the NCTA Cable Show in Chicago on Wednesday, Horizon Media president and CEO Bill Koenigsberg said that for all the dollars flowing into the upfront marketplace, the annual trading session does not necessarily serve as a reliable indicator for how the remainder of the year will shake out.

“I don’t think the barometer of this upfront is a forecast for the future,” Koenigsberg said, adding that “the jury still out” as to whether the general economy will cause advertisers to pull back in the latter half of the year.

Koenigsberg has been a vocal critic of the upfront, in which broadcasters sell between 75 percent and 80 percent of their available prime time inventory. (Cable networks move roughly 50 percent.) In February, the Horizon founder said the upfront was no longer the most efficient way to serve the needs of the client, as it forces marketers to make a premature commitment to vast amounts of ad space.

He also has characterized the upfront as TV’s “silly season,” decrying the sort of posturing that goes on when one side of the buyer-seller continuum holds greater sway than the other.

For all his misgivings about the upfront process, Koenigsberg isn’t necessarily a malcontent. He just sees a certain irrational exuberance inherent in the gung-ho ad market, a giddiness that seems at odds with the nation’s high unemployment rate (9.1 percent in May 2011) and sagging housing market.

Clients “aren’t throwing any parades” for the recovery, Koenigsberg said.

Other agency chiefs were cautiously optimistic about the enduring solidity of the ad market. Tim Spengler, president of Initiative North America, said he holds out hope that the greater consumer economy will eventually pull alongside the increasingly robust advertising economy.

“We’ve seen no signs of pullback yet,” Spengler said.

So long as automotive, financial services, consumer packaged goods, entertainment, and retail remain active, there is little to worry about in the near term. Pharma has been particularly robust in recent months, and the lone trouble spot appears to be QSR (fast food).

Meanwhile, back in New York, the major cable network players are close to wrapping their 2011-12 upfront business. Viacom’s MTV Networks were the first to break the tape, trading inflated CPMs for a greater share of volume.

Speaking at a special Cable Show edition of CNBC’s Closing Bell, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman told Maria Bartiromo that he was “very pleased with the upfront,” adding that Viacom’s cable properties secured “double-digit pricing gains and also double-digit increases in the amount of advertising sold.”

Contrary to Koenigsberg’s take, Dauman said MTVN’s upfront performance “sets us up very well for the next fiscal year.”

While Turner Broadcasting, Discovery Communications, NBC Universal, FX Networks, and A&E Networks are all nearing the end of the race, none of these groups has finished writing business with buying giant GroupM, which handles some $60 billion in client billings.

The five English-language broadcast networks last week concluded their portion of the spring bazaar, writing an estimated $9.2 billion in advanced commitments. That represents a 4 percent gain from last year’s haul.

Cable is likely to match that figure, as buyers and sellers anticipate overall volume gains of 12 percent. If those projections hold, the cable networks will have booked a little more than $9 billion in the 2011-12 bazaar.