Broadcasters Wrap Spring Fling

ABC, CBS, NBC cross the upfront finish line; Turner leads cable market

Broadcast’s time at the upfront table is up, as ABC, CBS and NBC on Thursday closed out their respective negotiations.

According to media buyers, ABC had nailed down average CPM gains of 10 to 11 percent, on par with the price hikes secured by Fox and the CW. CBS commanded broadcast’s highest price increases, writing deals at a 13 percent premium over its year-ago rates.

Crossing the finish line late Thursday afternoon, NBC pumped up its prime time and news rates by 9 percent. 

More importantly, the remaining networks secured significant dollar volume increases. CBS snapped up an additional $150 million, for a grand total of approximately $2.65 billion in upfront commitments, while ABC is believed to have racked up $2.5 billion in early sponsor commitments for its 2011-12 prime time slate.

Both networks saw volume increase by around 6 percent versus last year’s bazaar.

NBC booked about $100 million more this time around, bringing its total upfront take to around $1.75 billion. Sources say the Peacock sold off around 80 percent of its available air time in prime, on par with the amount of inventory it sold off a year ago.

NBC’s entertainment sales are substantial, especially in light of the fact that it will program 17 fewer days of prime time in summer 2012, thanks to its stewardship of the London Olympic Games.

While an exact percentage of inventory sold was not readily available, buyers said that ABC cleared out slightly more than the 75 percent it auctioned off during the 2010-11 marketplace, while CBS moved approximately 80 percent of its prime time avails. 

In a statement, ABC said its fall schedule elicited a “strong response from advertisers,” which resulted in “significant increases in pricing … and volume.”

On Tuesday night, the CW became the second net to finish its upfront dealings, taking in between $400 million and $420 million in advance commitments.

Fox last week wrapped its portion of the spring trading season with about $2.2 billion in hand.

Total trading volume for the five networks is expected to be up 4 percent over last year’s haul, bringing the estimated take for 2011-12 to around $9.25 billion.

On the cable side of the ledger, Turner Broadcasting has the upper hand, closing out 75 percent of its business as of Thursday afternoon, while writing average CPM increases of 13 percent.

Turner’s upfront strategy was similar in many respects to the CBS game plan in that both outfits went out swinging for the fences. Turner’s opening gambit was to ask for mid-teen pricing hikes, while CBS charged out of the gate seeking between 17 and 18 percent; both are presently writing deals at 12 and 13 percent premiums.

Clients were particularly interested in TNT’s original series—the network boasts cable’s most-watched homegrown drama in The Closer, while upcoming prospects include the Steven Spielberg alien apocalypse strip, Falling Skies—as well as acquired properties like Warner Bros. Domestic TV’s The Mentalist and The Big Bang Theory (on TBS).

While TNT, TBS, and truTV are commanding similar CPM increases, the nighttime Adult Swim block is believed to be writing even bigger numbers. What with the uncertainty engendered by the NFL lockout and the relative difficulty in reaching the demo, anything that attracts a young male audience is selling like proverbial hot cakes this season. (See also: FX, MTV and Comedy Central.)

Turner is the lone cable property that is in a position to wrap its 2011-12 upfront business before the weekend, although Discovery Communications, A & E Networks, Viacom’s MTV Networks, and ESPN also have moved a significant amount of upfront inventory.

Other cable groups should begin to move in earnest by the beginning of next week.

With dollars siphoning out of broadcast and money moving from scatter to the upfront, analysts expect the national cable nets will boost their total take by as much as 15 percent, securing an estimated $9.23 billion in business.