Upfront: Numbers on the Upswing

NEW YORK — The 2002-03 prime-time broadcast TV season’s upfront marketplace could total $7.6 billion when buying is completed by week’s end, media buyers and network executives said.

That would represent an increase of $700 million or more than 10 percent over last year’s $6.9 billion, and more than halfway back to the networks’ record $8.1 billion take in 2000. In all, as much as 40 percent, or $3 billion of all broadcast prime-time upfront dollars, were expected to be sold by the six networks by last weekend.

Network executives said they weren’t surprised by the turnaround, but most media buyers claimed they were caught off guard. “Things are a lot stronger than we thought they would be,” said one media buyer. “Most agencies didn’t have all their client budgets in until early last week, and many of the early-submitted budgets were flat to up only a few percent. Plus, some new clients for each agency, who didn’t last year, decided to buy in the upfront.”

Categories driving the increased dollars include movies, retail, automotive and telecommunications. “Those categories are hotter than a firecracker,” said one buyer.

Helping to fuel the early ad-dollar influx was OMD’s cross-platform deal with Walt Disney Co., worth $1 billion-plus across all Disney media properties, which was expected to be done by last weekend. The one-year deal would begin this fall and allocate money from some 100 OMD clients to Disney cable, broadcast, radio, print, syndication and Internet units. OMD managing partner and broadcast head Dan Rank would not discuss the deal. However, sources indicated it includes spending of at least $300 million on ABC, $80 million on Disney-owned Lifetime and $150 million on ESPN.

Although Merrill Lynch and Salomon Smith Barney forecast only low, single- digit growth in upfront spending, ad-industry analysts are adjusting their total 2002 adspend forecasts upward. Merrill Lynch is now estimating a 0.4 percent gain over 2001, up from a 1.5 percent decline. Lehman Bros. also raised its domestic-spending expectations, up from 0.6 percent to 1.4 percent.