Upfront at Forefront of TVWeek Summit

May 2, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Will this year’s television upfront be robust or cautious? The answer depends on whether buyers or sellers are doing the talking.

Both were on hand last week at the TelevisionWeek/Advertising Age Upfront Summit in New York, which drew about 400 attendees.

During a panel discussion looking at “The Early Line” for the upfront, Debbie Richman, U.S. director of national television at OMD, said that based on conversations with her clients, “the overall sentiment is a lack of excitement and a lack of urgency on their part.”

She said clients are taking a cautious approach because they don’t see a reason to rush into upfront deals when, looking at this season’s scatter market, last year’s upfront might have been overpriced. They wonder if they wait to buy a media schedule, “maybe I can get it cheaper,” she said.

Sellers were considerably more bullish.

“The network TV marketing is going to be very robust,” said Mike Shaw, president of sales for ABC, which is riding high thanks to the success of freshman shows “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” “It’s going to be a fun upfront.”

Charlie Collier, executive VP of ad sales for Court TV, said the scatter market has been building in the second quarter, which he called a good sign for a strong upfront: “I think the market is poised for another successful cable run.”

Tom McGarrity, co-president of Univision Network Sales, predicted the Spanish-language market also would be strong. “There are not many arrows in our world that don’t point in a northern direction,” he said, citing a 22 percent increase in ratings season to date, World Cup broadcasts and the inclusion of Univision in Nielsen Media Research’s National Television Index report as positive indicators. “I think people are always interested in a growth opportunity,” Mr. McGarrity said.

Clark Morehouse, senior VP of sales for Tribune Entertainment, said syndication’s bedrock series-talk shows, court shows and news and entertainment shows-are performing well and that the industry has been fighting back against a strong marketing effort by cable with a refortified Syndicated Network Television Association.

Another panel dealt with how technology will change television advertising.

Robert Brennan, director of marketing services for Miller Brewing Co., said the entire TV model needs to be retooled to shift from one that’s invasive to one of viewer engagement. He said that young viewers engage in a process he called “content purifications,” which means they are seeing the content they want, when they want to see it. “Part of the process is eliminating the marketing message,” he said.

“We’ve got to reassess the way we buy video,” said Tim Hanlon, senior VP of emerging contacts at Starcom MediaVest Group. He said both buyers and sellers are “probably woefully behind where consumers are,” especially young people.

Getting people to watch ads on video-on-demand “is a creative challenge,” said David Cassaro, president of Comcast Network advertising sales. “You have to come up with a new way to get the message to consumers appropriately.”

After Mr. Cassaro spoke, Mr. Hanlon asserted that “there is a disconnect preventing VOD from becoming an ad-supported medium.” Mr. Hanlon said different parts of Comcast were not providing data on VOD usage that advertisers and agencies need, but Mr. Cassaro had heard such criticism before and responded.

“No one has a bigger bet on VOD than Comcast,” he said. He said the responsible thing to do is to get the data right. “We’ll get it right,” he added.

The panel looked at several changes on the horizon, from minute-by-minute ratings reports to plans that would allow viewers to pay for commercial-free content or watch for free with commercials.

But Mr. Brennan, who left a post at Starcom in 2001, noted that when he joined Miller, “I was surprised by the lack of change. Nothing happened in the last five years.”

A third panel looking at the way the upfront is structured saw little reason to change the way business is done.

“I don’t think the process is broken,” said Joe Abruzzese, president of advertising sales for Discovery Networks U.S.

“I think the people who complain don’t understand it,” said Jon Mandel, chairman of MediaCom U.S. and chief global buying officer of MediaCom Worldwide. “Those with balls don’t complain because they’re moving the dollars around. If you don’t like the pricing, buy radio.”