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Cautious optimism sets the tone for TV buying season

May 6, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Upfront prognosticators are pegging this as the year of the turnaround, but the big questions are how big the 2002 pie will be and which segment will get the biggest slice.
The TV market overall is likely to be up in the 3 percent to 5 percent range. Cable should be up, with forecasters predicting a dollar rise in the 5 percent to 12 percent range for the segment over last year. That means anywhere from $200 million to $500 million more flowing into ad-supported cable’s coffers. Last year, cable took in approximately $4 billion.
For syndication, which had a disastrous 2001, there appears to be more trouble ahead, with no new must-buy breakthrough hits on the horizon.
Broadcast networks at best are likely to see a modest increase over last year’s $7 billion take, which in turn represented a precipitous 14 percent ad-dollar decline from 2000. Forecasts for broadcast range from up slightly to steady to down approximately 3 percent from last year.
Most insiders agree that NBC will fare best among the top six networks during the coming upfront season, with NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker counting on considerable help from his “Friends.”
Already boasting its largest-ever season-to-date cushion in the coveted adults 18 to 49 demographic this season-the biggest since the advent of Nielsen People Meters in 1987-NBC is, in the view of media watchers, likely to win its third consecutive demo crown next season due in large part to the “Friends” farewell tour. “NBC … is the one to beat [next season], with `Friends” swan song expected to draw hyper-intensified viewer interest,” said Roy Rothstein, executive VP and director of audience research for New York-based Zenith Media.
However, the more than a dozen failed sitcom efforts in the 8:30 p.m. (ET) Thursday lead-out time slot from “Friends” have been a nagging concern for NBC programmers. Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling, acknowledged that 8:30 Thursday is a “huge priority” for the network. But he said the network’s partially revamped Tuesday and Sunday lineups, which are still works in progress, are getting as much emphasis in the current pilot development process.
John Rash, chief broadcast negotiator for Minneapolis-based Campbell Mithun, said NBC has the opportunity to build on its successful position in prime time, but it is too early to tell how it will all shake out since “40 percent of the [competing] networks’ aggregate schedules will be filled with new series. NBC, with only a few holes to fill, will endeavor to find replacement shows to come out of springboards like `Friends’ or `Frasier,’ so their development is not only crucial for the 2002-2003 season but also really sets the table for the 2003-2004 season,” he said.
With “Inside Schwartz” and “Leap of Faith” dropping more than one quarter of the “Friends” lead-in as this season’s 8:30 p.m. fodder, speculation has it that NBC will be searching for a new, compatible lead-out. Given that buyers think it’s not likely that “Leap” will come back next season, sources say a leading candidate is “Good Morning, Miss Miami,” which has a 13-episode commitment.
Hollywood studio and agency talent executives suggest Mr. Zucker is already seriously mulling a “Friends” spinoff once the original vacates the 8 p.m. slot next May. Sources are speculating that “Friends” cast members Matt LeBlanc and/or Lisa Kudrow could headline a spinoff in an effort to hold on to the Peacock’s 8 p.m. time slot dominance.
Heading into next season, buyers think the battle for second place in adults 18 to 49-among Fox, CBS and even a rebuilding project like ABC-could be of most interest, since whoever comes out strongest could be in the best competitive position to challenge NBC the following season.
Although Fox suffered from a late start to its 2001-02 season-a season that saw the rapid deterioration of “The X-Files” and “Ally McBeal,” leading up to their cancellations-the network had success planting new sitcoms “Bernie Mac” and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe.” With Fox boasting 10 sitcoms in its prime-time lineup (two more than NBC), ad buyers think the network has a sufficient young-demo springboard to prop several new dramas Fox will attempt to launch in its fall 2002 lineup.
Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling, cites “X-Files”’ soon-to-be-vacated 9 p.m. Sunday time slot, “Ally McBeal’s” 9 p.m. Monday slot and a potential move of 9 p.m. Friday drama “Dark Angel” as creating opportunities for trying new dramas on those evenings. Fox plans to keep sophomore drama “Boston Public” in its 8 p.m. Monday slot, and Hollywood watchers took that as a signal that series producer David E. Kelley will maintain hold of the companion 9 p.m. time slot with “Girls Club,” a legal drama featuring three young female attorneys sharing a San Francisco loft-strikingly similar in demo appeal to “Ally McBeal.”
Perhaps more intriguing is what Fox will do with its young-demo-dominant Sunday night lineup, with such new sci-fi dramas as Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” and a remake of “Time Tunnel” potentially vying for the “X-Files” time slot. It is also possible that one of those dramas, or “John Doe”-about an amnesiac who becomes a genius-could be teamed with “Dark Angel,” which has suffered this season in its move from Tuesday to Friday night.
Tom DeCabia, a national broadcast buyer for New York-based PHD, suggested that while Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman has several “promising” drama projects, she might also want to focus on putting “higher-gloss” series on Thursday night-an evening the network has historically ceded to NBC and CBS by running lower-cost reality and scripted programming.
“I just can’t understand how Fox, which owns a studio, can stay out of the game when Thursday represents the biggest amount of dollars of any night-most of it coming from movie advertising in advance of weekend openings,” Mr. DeCabia said. “Fox already delivers squarely in the younger-adults demos, and they just can’t afford not to be in that game on Thursdays-there’s too much at stake there.”
With rumors circulating that Fox could make a run at NBC by moving “Malcolm in the Middle” to 8 p.m. Thursday for the 2003-04 season, Mr. DeCabia suggested that “Bernie Mac” could similarly be considered for that slot, which is being surrendered by “Friends”’ departure after next season.
Ad buyers consider it likely that CBS will stand pat on Thursdays next fall, with the fifth installment of “Survivor” staying in the 8 p.m. hour followed by the highly rated 9 p.m. drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which has put the Eye Network in the win column in adults 18 to 49 and total viewers. Some buyers think CBS may elect to insert Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Without a Trace” in the 10 p.m. slot-in place of its so-so player “The Agency”-to further chip away at NBC’s once-untouchable “ER.” However, other buyers are taking odds on spinoff “CSI: Miami” being inserted either in the 10 p.m. Monday or 9 p.m. Friday slots. Michael Mann’s untitled cop drama is also said to be a contender for 10 p.m. Friday.
A number of industry watchers feel CBS did not have a good season launching new shows, other than “The Amazing Race” at 9 p.m. Wednesday and “Baby Bob” at 8:30 p.m. Monday. Also, with only seven comedies in development (vs. 11 dramas), there is some concern CBS could lose some of the momentum it enjoyed in the past two seasons with the 18 to 49 and 18 to 34 demos.
“This season, CBS retained the previous year’s gains but did little to build on them, which was a little bit disappointing,” said John Rash, chief broadcast negotiator for Minneapolis-based Campbell Mithun. “Their breakthroughs which altered their demographic destinies were `CSI,’ `Survivor’ and `Amazing Race,’ so I’m not sure if increasing their ratio of sitcoms to dramas will help them go younger. Their development was lackluster last year, but I expect them to be much more aggressive this time around.”
The same could be said about A
BC, which unsuccessfully tried to go with more young-adult-themed sitcoms and dramas to make up for the loss of younger viewers that took place when the network aired four nights of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” during the 1999-2000 season. Recently installed ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne made an aggressive effort last month to reach out personally to advertisers through informal meetings, carrying the message that ABC intends to go back to its once-familiar “family” brand, which is also intrinsically linked with parent The Walt Disney Co.
Virtually every night of ABC’s schedule except Sunday will be up for some sort of revamping, but the most striking challenge could be the Alphabet’s effort to revive its family-oriented “TGIF” comedy lineup on Fridays. Wednesday evening may play a part in the resuscitation plan, with ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” springboard at 8 p.m. giving life to lead-outs “According to Jim” and, more recently, “The George Lopez Show.” Some buyers think ABC may look to move either “According to Jim” or “George Lopez” to anchor the new Friday sitcom lineup.
“All of that stuff keeps coming up for discussion [with ad buyers], but `George Lopez’ just aired four episodes, and making a decision on how to alternatively schedule it is a bit early into the process,” said Jeff Bader, ABC’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling. “What has worked for us on Wednesday is having `My Wife and Kids’ and `According to Jim’ working and giving ABC a footprint in the opening hour, so I don’t think moving one of those would be a option.”
Zenith Media’s Mr. Rothstein and PHD’s Mr. DeCabia like much of what they’ve seen of ABC’s early development, and both said ABC may have the most upside when it comes to year-to-year rating comparisons starting next season.
With UPN’s 19 percent increases this season in adults 18 to 34 and adults 18 to 49, few buyers expect radical changes to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”- and “WWF Smackdown”-fueled lineup. The network, now under the purview and combined sales of sister network CBS, has only six series in development for next season (five dramas and one sitcom) for the two hours it is expected to fill in it schedule. UPN President Dawn Ostroff is said to be seeing vulnerable spots in UPN’s lineup only at 9 p.m. Tuesday (coming out of “Buffy”) and 9 p.m. Wednesday (out of “Enterprise”).
Some buyers expect UPN to get high to mid-single-digit increases in costs per thousand in its core young-male demos. They also expect The WB-despite being flat year to year in its core females 12 to 34 demo-to come out with mid- to low single-digit increases as a reward for taking chances in planting “Reba” as a new 9 p.m. sitcom tentpole on Friday and introducing “Smallville” as part of a breakthrough Tuesday night drama lineup with “Gilmore Girls.”