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Nets Prime the Pump

Broadcast networks unveil ambitious slates

Crystal plays Dr. Zaius on NBC’s forthcoming "Animal Practice". Photo:Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

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Trying to gauge the quality of a 22-episode television series by watching three minutes of foot-age culled from the pilot is akin to declaring your major when you’re in kindergarten. And yet, this is what media buyers and clients do every year in May, when the five English-language broadcast networks host their respective up-front presentations in New York.

Sure, even an untrained eye can spot a stinker from the cheap seats in Avery Fisher Hall. Last year, an audible groan rose up after ABC teased the cross-dressing comedy series Work It, an outburst that was followed in short order by a good deal of nervous giggling. But a hit? That’s another story altogether.

Only a handful of new series really seemed to distinguish themselves this year, a limited roster that includes NBC’s apocalyptic drama Revolution, CBS’ cops, mobsters and casinos period piece Vegas and the Fox midseason thriller The Following.

On the comedy front, clients are abuzz about Matthew Perry’s latest NBC effort Go On and Fox’s The Mindy Project, a tour de force created by Mindy Kaling.

This could all change once the pilots begin circulating in a week or so, a deluge that coincides with the period in which clients will begin registering their TV budgets. And even if the National Football League is the only must-buy on the tube, most clients still tend to invest in individual series.

“The programming mix is still a priority,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast, OMD. “Some clients are more concerned with atmospherics and the particular programming environment, and of course we often have our own reasons for aligning brands with certain shows.”

Analysts believe the 2012-13 marketplace should be healthy, though it’s unlikely it will top last year. For one thing, scatter is nowhere near as strong as it was in the first and second quarters of 2011. And in the absence of registered budgets, trying to estimate demand is a matter of guesswork.

“Across all the agencies at SMG, we’re having a more difficult time getting confirmed, approved budgets from clients,” said John Muszynski, chief investment officer, Starcom MediaVest Group Exchange. “We probably won’t get a gauge on where the budgets will be until after Memorial Day weekend, and until that happens, we won’t have a handle on where pricing will be.”

Muszynski added that while it’s possible a few early deals could close before the end of the month, they would likely be “protection deals,” holds placed without establishing any actual pricing.

While it’s too early to predict exactly how the upfront will play out, the smart money says Fox will kick-start the market. “They’ll go out early to the auto and studio categories,” Muszynski said.

For his part, Geraci believes that there’s one surefi re way to get the ball rolling: “The network that goes for share and not price could move very quickly.”

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