Will Nets’ Scatter Bet Pay Off?

Dame Fortune is a flaky old broad and deaf as an adder, and anyone who thrives on her favor will eventually come to understand the dual meaning of the term “standard deviation.” Kenny Rogers said as much in his 1978 hit, “The Gambler.”

If the 2009-10 TV upfront market was all about knowin’ when to hold ’em and knowin’ when to fold ’em, it appears we won’t be able to assess exactly how well the networks played their collective hand until next year. About $2 billion got left on the table, leaving ad sales bosses to go all in on what they hope will be a rock-solid scatter market. So far, the bet seems to be paying off.

Like hopes for an economic recovery, the national TV ad marketplace is a fragile thing, and yet buyers and sellers alike are reporting an early surge in fourth-quarter spending. Scatter pricing in broadcast, so far, is said to be between 5 percent and 8 percent higher than upfront rates, said buyers, as clients who sat out the summer poker tourney are anteing up again. Lured by a promising slate of new series (and a subsequent run of solid deliveries), marketers who suddenly found a few extra dollars moved quickly to pick up time on the fall schedule.

Of course, the chips are stacking up in the wake of the softest upfront market since 2001, when broadcasters swallowed CPM rollbacks between 2 percent and 8 percent off the prior-year rates. And while the increased activity is a welcome sign, no one is exactly belting out “Happy Days Are Here Again” just yet, either.

For example, some media buyers said they will wait a month or longer before jumping into the fray, stepping back a bit in order to gauge the durability of the newly bullish market. Those who are holding back suggest the uptick may be an artificial construct, a rogue storm cell formed by the confluence of unusual events that shaped this year’s market.

The lollygagging upfront threw off client presentations and more than a few internal clocks, causing the holds-to-orders cycle to bleed into the registering of Q4 scatter budgets, according to sources actively participating in the process. In some cases, clients who had cut costs in Q2 and Q3 began looking to add to their commitments when they went to order. “The timing made it possible for some advertisers to try and scarf up some extra time, but at upfront pricing,” said one national TV buyer who declined to speak for attribution. “That sort of thing has been met with mixed results. Some [networks] may be in a position where they’ll take whatever money gets thrown their way, even at the expense of getting the modest increases of scatter.”

For want of a better word, the compression gave rise to a mash-up marketplace. “The result was a kind of hybrid upfront-scatter market” that kicked in after Labor Day, explained Harry Keeshan, executive vp, national broadcast, PHD. “Normally there are pretty clear lines when the upfront ends, when we go to order and then get into the scatter market. This year it kind of got all mushed into one.”

In fact, some shops are still presenting their formal upfront buy recommendations to clients, said Christine Merrifield, senior vp, director of video investment and activations and operations, MediaVest. And still, the dollars keep rolling in. “There’s money in the marketplace. We’re encouraged that the market is getting healthier as far as demand,” she said.


Despite the recent surge in activity, some buyers don’t see this as a return to form. “Will it continue? I’m betting not,” said the top buyer at a media agency. “I think the add-on money kind of ignited the market a little, and I think it will slow down as we go forward.”