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Upfront Preview: Down Market Up for Grabs

May 14, 2007  •  Post A Comment

If only network upfront presentations to advertisers were in February.

Three months ago, every network had cause to celebrate. Fox was roaring back with the biggest “American Idol” debut ever. CBS was touting the ongoing success of its workhorse dramas and the Super Bowl. ABC had just come off its best fall in years. NBC was climbing out of its slump and showing fresh success with “Heroes.” Even new network The CW had a string of recent weeks showing its former UPN and WB content gaining new ground.

Then shows started returning from hiatus showing dramatic viewership drops.

Then came March 11, the three-week-early arrival of daylight-saving time.

Then came the string of seemingly mysterious record lows for a number of programs—ratings crashes that were most remarkable for their lack of network and content discrimination. It was as though some ratings-draining contagion had infected broadcast prime-time television and it no longer mattered whether a show was reality or scripted, serialized or episodic, freshman or veteran.

Echoing many, John Rash, senior VP and director of media negotiations at Campbell Mithun, blamed “a confluence of factors” for the malaise.

“It’s inclusive of time shifting—both governmental, via daylight savings, and technological, with DVR penetration increasing,” he said. “The fractured media landscape is affecting television as well as other media forms. Several popular programs are in the later stages in their life cycles.”

Whatever the cause, network executives are marching into New York theater halls while press articles declare that audiences are fleeing television, with statistics showing 2.5 million fewer viewers are watching broadcast television compared with last year (at least, watching in ways that are readily measured by Nielsen).

To compensate, networks this week will try to be as creative with their scheduling, use of digital platforms and ad integration as series showrunners are with crafting cliffhangers.

Lengthy hiatus breaks are out. Content wraps and other commercial innovations are in. Serialized shows are out. Episodic or semi-serialized shows are in.

This year also marks the first upfront presentation since all the networks launched their streaming online media players, an increasingly popular viewing option without skippable ads. So expect increased emphasis on driving viewers to embrace the new medium.

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