Fox Sets Market as Rivals Grouse; Cable on Deck

Fox's freshman sales chief draws praise and barbs for early market play

Mere days after Fox got the upfront rolling, what promised to be an orderly, well-mannered process became a little punchy.

Perhaps it was the sudden rash of midsummer humidity that had ad sales executives all hot and bothered last week, or maybe it had something to do with the disappointing employment figures for May and their subsequent drag on the stock market. Whatever the case, by midweek the TV ad market’s emotional climate was decidedly unsettled.

At the center of all the sturm and drang was Fox ad sales president Toby Byrne. Longtime Fox sales president Jon Nesvig’s handpicked successor navigated his first solo upfront flight like an ace, securing 11 percent CPM increases and moving 80 percent of Fox’s 2011-12 inventory. While Fox did not furnish volume estimates, sources eyeballed the network’s year-over-year dollar increase at around 10 percent.

If that number holds up, Fox will have closed its upfront business having nailed down around $2.2 billion in advance commitments.

“He did one hell of a read,” says one sales captain. “He got his numbers, he whipped up a lot of business for the new show [The X Factor], and he set the stage for everyone else. Good for him.”

But rival broadcast executives found Byrne’s performance to be less than rich. The grousing began as soon as word got out that Fox was writing those 11 percent premiums; sales bosses looking for richer price hikes fretted that Byrne had lowballed the market. As a result, the other four networks could be victims of the Fox precedent.

“What was the hurry, is what I don’t understand,” one sales associate says. “Fox could have held out for a better price. They left all that money on the table.”

The notion that it’s part of Byrne’s mandate to drive up pricing for the rest of the sellers is absurd, and the peevish response of his peers didn’t leave an impression with media buyers.

“Forget about rate of change for a moment,” says one buyer. “What’s really going on is that [Byrne] saw something in the budgets that made him want to move fast. Maybe the demand’s not there, maybe there won’t be enough for everyone to cash in.”

Once Fox had finished doing business, the palaver died down, and it was back to business.

After throwing out initial demands for 18 percent premiums, CBS rolled up its sleeves and began cutting deals at 14 percent. Having resumed negotiations on Friday, CBS continues to proceed at a deliberate pace. As such, cable networks looking to get a jump on their own deals may have to hold their fire until after next week.

By Friday afternoon, The CW was all but finished with its deals. Like Fox, the female-friendly network has written 11 percent CPM increases

Still far from the finish are ABC, which, under the watch of sales chief Geri Wang, has completed business with one major media agency, and NBC. Marianne Gambelli’s sales team has been off the radar through the first seven days of the market’s active trading.