Buyers sniff and tell

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Now it’s the buyers’ turn.
The ad agencies have responded to the broadcast networks’ recent glitzy upfront presentations by producing in-house share estimates for each prime-time fall-season show. (Electronic Media has surveyed the agencies to produce a “consensus” share-estimate chart averaging the individual agency estimates. See Page 6.)
In this unusual upfront year, the two sides in this multibillion-dollar annual ritual now circle warily, keeping their plans and budgets close to the vest-even as they posture and spin in the press.
Agencies warn there’s less money to be spent and that the upfront may go on and on before any significant deals are done. Networks counter that media consolidation means there may be fewer-but bigger-deals this year, and that once the dominoes start to fall, upfront could be over quickly.
Buyers warn that sellers are already discounting, which, of course, sellers deny.
Buyers warn sellers that this is the year they actually will walk away from high prices. “To date we haven’t seen plans because we haven’t submitted budgets,” said veteran buyer Paul Schulman, president of Advanswers PHD. “We have to wait to get a
first plan before we can say the pricing is too high. And we’ve never had a first plan where we’ve said the pricing is too low, nor have we had a [first] plan where we’ve said we’ll take it.”
On the other hand, the general, perhaps grudging, agency consensus is that the broadcast networks overall have presented their strongest schedules in many years and that the networks’ drama development in particular has been so fruitful that the new season may even bring a stop to broadcast-share erosion.
There are other points of consensus about this upfront year. For example, almost everyone (Viacom’s senior management excepted) expects the upfront to be down $1 billion to as much as $1.5 billion from last year’s election-year/Olympics $8.1 billion bonanza (which actually resulted in a net upfront of approximately $7.7 billion after options were exercised).
Among other points of consensus:
This is the year when cross-platform deals, once confined to kids and sports, become ready for prime time. Last year at Rainbow (which includes Bravo, AMC and IFC among its networks), for example, there were no cross-platform deals. This year, according to Christopher T. Kager, president, national advertising sales, Rainbow Advertising Sales Corp., fully 40 percent of the company’s deals will be cross-platform.
CBS and NBC probably will continue their winning ways with households and demos, respectively, though the Peacock continues to look more vulnerable on Thursdays than it has in years. In the category of Most Improved Network, the award goes to ABC and its younger-skewing new shows, with honorable mention to Fox and its bench strength with youth-appeal comedy. On The WB and UPN, opinion is more divided, with agencies generally taking a stance that aligns them with one or the other, but not both, of the part-time nets’ big-time corporate parents.
When it comes to Thursday night and NBC’s crown jewel “Must See TV” schedule, this year it will be all-out war: “In my career I’ve never seen a blockbuster lineup like this,” said one agency’s senior partner of the 9 o’clock hour, adding that the networks “will do anything to get that movie studio money. This is suicide, suicide! One of the top shows on ABC, the second show on CBS, the No. 3 show on NBC, the No. 1-potentially-show on Fox; the No. 1 show on UPN. What are they, insane?”
The real loser of the Thursday broadcast war, said Tom Watson, vice president and director of research at Initiative Media North America, will be cable.
When it comes to individual shows, entrenched time-period competition is still what will derail most new series. Agencies were remarkably in sync when it came to their fall-season share estimates. For most shows, deviation among surveyed agencies was less than a single share point.
The biggest exception: a 4 share difference of opinion among agencies about “Thieves,” ABC’s new Friday 9 p.m. hour; the second-biggest divergence-3 share points-was over “Pasadena,” Fox’s new Friday night hour, scheduled for the same time period.
Other agency opinions about the new shows:
“Emeril”: “Bam! He’s gone!” was how one buyer put it, expressing the commonly held belief that the NBC sitcom will be the season’s first casualty. Runner-up for first to go: CBS’s “American Wreck,” which more than one buyer called “appropriately named.”
On Mondays, dueling quiz shows on NBC (“Weakest Link”) and ABC (“Millionaire”) have created an opportunity for Fox’s “Boston Public” to have its best year yet, more than one agency believes.
On Tuesdays, it’s dueling towns: The WB’s “Smallville” vs. UPN’s “Roswell,” with opinion almost evenly divided, though more than one buyer finds it hard to vote against Superman. Opinion is divided about ABC’s “Bob Patterson,” too: Can Jason Alexander carry a show himself, or is he merely this year’s Michael Richards? Not even the agencies can decide.