Has Demand for Broadcast TV Inventory Already Topped Out?

Looking at a flat upfront

While it will be a number of weeks before the networks will be able to accurately count the house, insiders suggest the 2013-14 upfront is likely to be a bit less robust than those of years past.

Although client budgets have yet to be registered, buyers are already hinting that demand for broadcast TV inventory appears to have topped out. As such, dollar volume is expected to be flat to down slightly versus the $9.75 billion in commitments secured by ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and the CW networks during last spring’s bazaar.

The upfront hasn’t gone retrograde since the recession-plagued 2009-10 sell-off when the Big Four booked 22 percent less business than it had the previous year. But buyers said that there are too many viable options to justify a disproportionately broadcast-heavy media plan.

“We have to go where the consumers are going, and that’s cable,” said one national TV buyer. “This could be the year we see a lot more money shift out of broadcast…and some of it’s bound to go to the cable guys.”

Buyers said they anticipate a relatively moderate marketplace, with CPM increases limited to the mid-single digits. Of course, preupfront chatter is by its very nature propaganda. Buyers tend to downgrade the market by a point or two, but in this case, Wall Street watchers concur. Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser said he believes CBS will lead the pack with average CPM hikes of 7 percent while the other nets should fall within the 4-to-6 percent range.

Unlike most analysts—and for that matter, TV ad sales execs—Wieser eschews any cant about looking at the upfront through the lens of the general economy. “There is no correlation whatsoever between macroeconomics and the upfront,” Wieser said. “There is no relationship between the two, statistically speaking.”

Barclays media analyst Anthony DiClemente said he sees similar pricing patterns, noting that the well-positioned CBS is likely to continue to lead the pack with 6.5 percent CPM increases, while overall broadcast volume will be up less than 1 percent. DiClemente thinks cable will once again outearn the Big Four, with volume improving 2 percent to $10 billion.

DiClemente’s projections key off of scatter rates, which are healthy if unspectacular. First-quarter pricing is up around 15 percent, and while that’s on par with the year-ago period, it’s weak beer compared to the 40 percent premiums the networks commanded in Q1 2011.

While cable sales bosses are licking their chops at the thought of siphoning off broadcast bucks, Wieser said he doesn’t expect to see a major shift: “I keep thinking that we’re approaching the point where network’s advantage over cable will cease to exist, but it just hasn’t happened yet.”

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