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The way it was: when the upfront was smaller and the tales were taller By Verne Ga

Let’s go straight to the videotape: Just what was the upfront like in the good old days? To belabor the obvious, it was smaller. A

And what about the people? In the late ’50s, there were probably two dozen men who spent every dime there was to spend on network TV. At first, most of them–chief programmers at Ted Bates, Benton & Bowles, J. Walter Thompson and a few other big agencies–made the shows the networks bought. You might say it was sort of a reverse-upfront market.
But by 1960, the tide had irrevocably turned. The networks got into the programming business, and they would sell entire shows to advertisers on what was called a “39/13” basis: 39 weeks of originals, 13 weeks of repeats. Sounds simple, and it was. Even more clear was the stranglehold CBS held on the market. Around the first of February, the two dozen big buyers would get a hand-delivered letter from CBS. In it was an oversized replica of a dollar bill with a message telling them to show up at precisely 8 a.m. on the 22nd–Washington’s birthday. So the admen would traipse down to the old CBS headquarters on Madison Avenue to sit through an entire day of shows. The network would run films of every show it planned to air on its schedule that fall. Based on the one-day viewing extravaganza, an upfront buy would be made, usually a day or two afterwards.
A stampede? Forget it: You quickly agreed on a price, signed on the dotted line, and your upfront buy was made whfle the cold winter winds were still blowing.
Network reputations were forged in those days–reputations that would stick for decades. CBS, for example, would invite its few key buyers to lunch at 21 and return that night for drinks. It was all very clubby and very arrogant. Nevertheless, CBS was a network that any big spender had to do business with, which CBS, naturally, understood. NBC was a little less restrictive, while ABC . . . . Ah yes, ABC.
ABC was the No. 3 network for what seemed like eternity. It held third place in spectacular fashion. When you’re that low, you invite everyone to your upfront party. ABC held its blowouts at places like the old Ziegfeld Theater. These events were, according to survivors, more interesting than the CBS Washington’s Birthday sale. Even into the ’70s, doing upfront business with ABC had a hint of debauchery about it. If you had to work a deal late into the night, you knew there would be food and booze. But executives wouldn’t order in from the local Chinese; maitre d’s at Romeo Salta’s or Ben Benson’s became accustomed to late-night calls from ABC wondering whether any of that three-inch-thick fillet with white peppercorn sauce could be shipped up.
Times changed in the network TV business, and so did fortunes. In the early ’80s, CBS decided to guarantee only household ratings, not the more desirable demographics (like women 18 to 49), and the results were predictable. The network worked long hours to convince people they’d be OK if they bought on a household guarantee. The message was, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”
ABC headquarters looked out over beleaguered Black Rock, and the sales offices of both networks happened to be on the same floor of their respective buildings. ABC salesman could thus watch CBS salesmen work feverishly in attempts to get a piece of some budget that ABC and NBC had just gotten a big chunk of. One day, the ABC sales troops decided to get into the sign-painting business. An executive painted the letters “D.W.Y.W.G.H.” on a huge white canvas and hung it from a window in full view of the weary CBS salesmen across the street. As they knew, the letters stood for: “Don’t Worry, You Won’t Get Hurt.”
Another ABC salesman ordered the art department to paint a huge replica of the CBS eye, which also went up on the window sill. But this was a special eye: It was rigged so that a large paper flap could be drawn over it by a lever. To anyone looking up, it gave the undeniable impression that the distinguished symbol of CBS was winking at them.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)