What the Buyers Want, and What They’re Getting

NEW YORK Advertisers’ budgets for spending on television for the 2007-08 season will be flat to up by a few percentage points from last year’s $8.75 billion, media buyers said. And when the broadcast networks introduce their fall schedules in New York this week, buyers warned, they will need to offer shows with better hit potential, or dollars will go elsewhere.

Media buyers made a point of saying last week that positioning is not enough to win bigger budgets. The CW, for example, is not guaranteed to get ad dollars simply because it targets younger audiences. Nor will NBC benefit just because it reaches higher income viewers. ABC won’t draw more money because it has a few shows drawing buzz. And nor will Fox find advertisers flocking to it because it has once again won the adults 18-49 battle.

In other words, none of the five broadcast networks are immune from potentially losing upfront ad dollars. Most buyers have said that the majority of this upfront would be spent on sorting out issues around negotiating currency, but the quality of new programming and what the networks want to charge for it would matter more than ever.

Here is a ranking of each broadcast network based on schedule stability (starting with least stable) heading into the upfront.

First up is The CW. The strategy of offering the best programming from the defunct WB and UPN this season did not produce the ratings bonanza the network expected. In fact, The CW ranks below Hispanic network Univision across several major demo groups. The net lost two of its signature shows, 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls, and its lone new drama, Runaway, failed this season—there are lots of holes to fill. The CW is in dire need of a show that generates buzz among its core 18-34-year-old audience. That show may be Gossip Girl, a drama based on the book series about the lives of rich New York City teens and their parents. Other new shows expected to make the cut are Reaper, a dramedy centered on a 21-year-old guy who becomes a bounty hunter for the devil; Wild at Heart, a drama about a New York veterinarian who moves to South Africa, and Aliens in America, a comedy based on a Muslim exchange student who lives with a Wisconsin family.

Second is NBC. The network is still the highest priced, but only the fourth-highest-rated among the Big Four. Other than its freshman hit Heroes (and critically acclaimed The Office), NBC has nothing buzzworthy. Many of its dramas are old and tired, and scheduling holes abound. Adding Sunday Night Football helped in the fourth quarter, but getting viewers to watch entertainment the rest of the year has been a problem. NBC plans to add several Heroes-type dramas to its fall schedule. One is a remake of The Bionic Woman. Another is Chuck, about a computer whiz who gets the world’s greatest spy secrets embedded into his head. The third is Journeyman, which follows a happily married man who travels back to the past. One possible game-changer for NBC could be Lipstick Jungle, which tracks three career-oriented women who will do anything to get ahead. But beyond new shows, NBC will most likely have to drop its pricing even lower in order to maintain its share of upfront dollars.

As for ABC, the network has been fortunate to have three genuine successes on its schedule—Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Lost. Ugly Betty is also a hit, albeit on a lesser scale (ratings-wise). Because of these buzz shows, ABC has been steadily increasing its pricing. This may be the year media buyers look to push back because the network still has many holes in its lineup. ABC is counting on a Grey’s spinoff and has 13 drama and 15 comedy pilots to pick from. One plus is that ABC reaches a lot of women and it could become an alternative to The CW if it can price itself appropriately.

Then there’s Fox, which is not a one-trick pony with American Idol, but it is close. It was in fourth place in the 18-49 demo race until Idol premiered in January and again propelled it to the top. House is a bona fide hit, and Bones had a solid season. However, 24 and Prison Break suffered ratings declines this season. Fox’s Sunday animation block is still strong, but lost 20 percent of its audience in the fall vs. Sunday Night Football. While Fox has had success with new game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? on Thursdays (it could pair it with its planned Search for the Next Great American Band in the fall), buyers want to see more scripted fare. Under consideration are The Cure, a medical drama; courtroom drama Canterbury’s Law; cop drama The Apostles; and Sarah Connor Chronicles, based on The Terminator movies. With less postseason baseball, Fox will be able to spend more time in October rolling out its new shows in a less disruptive environment.

And then there’s CBS. Despite having the fewest holes on its schedule, media buyers say the network’s failure to produce a big buzz show has prevented it from significantly boosting its ad rates. Still, CBS has the luxury of making upfront decisions to replace veteran programs with marginal ratings, such as Close to Home, rather than worrying about filling huge holes throughout its schedule. The network is losing King of Queens, but could pick up I’m in Hell, a sitcom starring American Pie star Jason Biggs. Because of its stability, CBS will not be under the gun as much as NBC, ABC or The CW to roll back prices.