ABC Wraps Its Upfront Business, With Volume Down Slightly

CPMs were up 7-8 percent, but net had fewer ratings points to sell

ABC has closed out the last of its upfront negotiations, concluding an arduous process that began 10 weeks ago.

The network stuck to its guns throughout the summer bazaar, securing CPM increases in the 7 percent to 8 percent range. Volume estimates vary, although buyers said that ABC isn’t likely to have dropped more than 5 percent.

Having finished the season down 8 percent in the 18-49 demo, ABC had fewer gross ratings points to sell in this year’s upfront. Compared to its rivals, the alphabet net tends to hold onto a bit more inventory for scatter; as such, buyers estimate that ABC’s sell-out rate is in the neighborhood of 75 percent.

With scatter strengthening as the year progresses, ABC could find itself in a relatively enviable position when the 2013-14 season begins. The network boasts two of the most buzzworthy new shows in the sci-fi/adventure strip Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the supernatural mid-season drama Resurrection, and has a breakout hit on its hands in the Beltway potboiler Scandal. Per Nielsen live-plus-seven-day data, Scandal’s second season averaged 10.1 million total viewers and a 3.5 rating in the dollar demo.

A year ago, ABC raked an estimated $2.5 billion in advance commitments; this time around, that number is probably closer to $2.35 billion. Because its female demos allow ABC to command much higher CPMs than its vanilla 18-49 deliveries might otherwise suggest, even a significant decrease in dollar volume isn’t likely to shake up the pecking order. In other words, ABC is expected to tuck in behind frontrunner CBS ($2.65 billion) and in front of Fox and NBC ($1.8 billion).

While this upfront market was marked by a number of tense negotiations, buyers were unwavering in their praise of ABC ad sales president Geri Wang, who quietly went about the business of getting the right price for her inventory.

“I have a lot of respect for Geri,” said one national TV buyer. “She’s not budging. ‘If you can’t get me my number, then I’ll see ya in scatter. Take it or leave it.’”

ABC parent company Walt Disney Co. reports its FY Q3 earnings on Tuesday, August 6 at 5 p.m. EDT. Disney chief Bob Iger is expected to offer more detail about the network’s upfront tally on the call.

BOILERPLATE: While there is not sufficient data to get a read on where overall upfront volume will shake out, it has become increasingly evident that the obsession over making revenue projections based on the notoriously squishy figures that circulate each June is a fool’s errand. For one thing, analysts estimate that there is only a 35 percent correlation between upfront spending and growth in the U.S. ad market. For another, the unverifiable numbers are placeholders. Until holds are converted to orders, they’re about as meaningless as the millions splashed across the tote board of a telethon. Furthermore, given that clients have the option to change and/or cancel these buys in three of the four fiscal quarters, the dollar figures don’t become “real” until the checks clear.