Nasty, brutish, long upfront anticipated

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The pre-upfront spin doctoring has begun, with advertising sellers at the networks pointing optimistically at signs of economic recovery, while ad-agency buyers are viewing the very same economy with alarm and a lugubrious sense of deepening gloom.
“The buyers’ point of view right now is to get the trades into a position of saying it’s going to be a negative year again,” said veteran buyer Paul Schulman, president of the New York office of Advanswers PHD, “and the sellers are trying to get the trades to say it will be a positive year.”
The name of the game is Spin the Press, and its goal is to create self-fulfilling expectations that will benefit one side or the other in TV advertising’s multibillion-dollar annual ritual.
Coming off one of the worst years in TV advertising history, the odds do favor some sort of recovery, even if it is just in small single digits and even if it doesn’t bring the ad market all the way back to the bountiful ad revenues of 2000. On the other hand, with war and terrorism as the great imponderables, the future may yet trump all positive expectations.
Bottom line, it’s still too early to tell much yet about this year’s upfront, except that it is likely to be protracted again. Advertisers, buffeted by the many shocks of 2001, are now exceedingly cautious. In the scatter market, they learned to buy closer to airdate than ever before, sometimes closing deals on a Friday for a flight that began the following Monday. With war and terrorism clouding any optimistic predictions, many advertisers are all but certain to hold back finalizing their upfront budgets until the very last moment too. That’s what they did last year as well, confounding sellers’ expectations that schedules would be unveiled, a few days [and all-nights] of hectic negotiations would ensue, and the upfront would be done. That’s how it happened in the years of plenty.
Instead, agencies and networks last year waited for nail-biting weeks before advertisers finalized their budgets. A repeat of that scenario means more anxiety in network and agency suites alike-and less summer vacation fun for overtaxed ad execs.

The protracted upfront last year “really hurt the industry’s golf handicaps last summer,” Mr. Schulman quipped.
Another sign of the times and another indication of the protracted upfront to come: This will not be the top-flight two-coast upfront to which advertisers and agencies are accustomed; the broadcast networks’ development presentations that customarily occur in Los Angeles in March already have been canceled.
ABC, CBS, Fox, The WB and UPN are expected to hold “more intimate, more informal” gatherings later in March for the individual agencies in New York. So far, only NBC has not planned a preview for agencies before the broadcast networks unveil their schedules during a week in mid-May.
What all that adds up to, however, is that at least some buyers won’t get their first looks at some networks’ potential fall shows until the formal upfront presentations in New York in May.
Without those first L.A. development presentations, some agencies will be harder-pressed to get a good sense of how much money the networks are investing in the new season and which networks look to better their ratings position. And that is a major ingredient in the recipe for a slow-cooking upfront.