The Upfronts: Spring’s Ad Fling

Anyone looking for evidence that the TV ad sales marketplace is back in pre-Great Recession form need look no further than the nearest hors d’oeuvres tray.
A year ago, the average upfront soiree was an exercise in wartime austerity. In place of jumbo shrimp cocktail, hacks were invited to nosh on a slurry of chilled Sea-Monkeys in ketchup. Even the most resourceful junior buyer soon learned that the closest thing to a free meal was the garnish on a watered-down drink.
My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Although only a handful of cable networks have unveiled their 2011-12 programming slates, early returns strongly support the theory of trickle-down swagonomics. MTV’s Feb. 2 event was as bibulous as any recent episode of Jersey Shore, and the unsolicited packages stuffed with geegaws and tchotchkes have begun to pile up in media mailrooms.
Cable will proceed with its merry round of breakfasts, luncheons and the odd showstopper—Syfy’s upfront could well be the only presentation that ends when an aerialist dressed like a goblin falls 50 feet into a table of Geico reps—but May is when things get serious. CBS is booking scatter inventory at a 40 premium versus its 2010-11 upfront rates and ABC is enjoying rate increases in excess of 30 percent.
“If you held back in last year’s upfront, you’re paying 30, 35 percent more to get back into the market,”said one ad sales chief. “Given the strength of the core categories and the demand for TV in general, you put a gun to my head and I’ll tell you this’ll be the strongest upfront we’ve ever seen.”
This despite the fact that last year’s bazaar was the most lucrative on record for cable. According to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, the 2010-11 upfront marked the first time cable drew even with the broadcast nets, booking $8 billion in advance sales.
If nothing else, that’ll buy a lot of shrimp cocktail.