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Prolonged Strike Could Trigger Upfront Revamp

Dec 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

If the writers strike lingers until January, with it could go the $9 billion TV upfront market.
Marketers and agencies have tried for years to change the way TV time is bought and sold, arguing that committing such a large portion of their budgets ahead of the start of the fall season no longer makes sense. And it’s looking increasingly like the Writers Guild of America strike could be the catalyst to retool the annual May upfront process.
“If we don’t have any [next-season pilots] developed and we are at the end of the first quarter, I have to believe that’s when everyone is starting to think that the upfront may be in jeopardy,” said Ed Gentner, senior VP-group client director at media buyer MediaVest USA. “Once you get beyond January, the traditional network development presentation that is generally in March is probably going to be off.”
Networks typically spend millions of dollars to hype their fall schedules, wooing advertisers during upfront week in May with song-and-dance numbers and huge bowls of shrimp. These celebrity-studded confabs could be delayed or even canceled this year due to the strike, but some deals would still get done. Without a robust slate of original dramas and sitcoms for prime time, however, there won’t be as many.
“If you can’t line up your marketing needs with program availability, you can’t do a deal. It’s irresponsible,” said Jason Kanefsky, senior VP and group account director at MPG.
This current period is “the quiet before the storm,” said an auto company marketing executive who requested anonymity. “The longer the strike goes on, the broader the impact.” Already, the pipeline for new product is far from brimming: “This time of year, there are usually 70-plus pilots, and shows that are in production. They don’t have that bulk of work,” said one executive TV show producer.
Carol Barbee, executive producer of the soon-to-return cult favorite “Jericho” on CBS, said while her show would only benefit (a full if shortened second season is already in the can) the damage could wreck havoc beyond the upfront. “If this goes past January, [the networks] have lost the entire development season,” Ms. Barbee said, “which means that they’ve lost all the new shows and the midseason replacements.”
Network executives, cognizant of ongoing negotiations, were not available for comment. But instead of bringing marketer and agency executives together in May for a presentation at Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall, networks will most likely opt for a series of private meetings to lay out their plans for the summer and beyond. Many advertisers’ budgets are locked in for the rest of 2007, and networks have largely been able to keep original programming on the air.
Reality shows and replacement programs are due in 2008. Some of them are of high quality, such as Fox’s “American Idol” and dramas from Showtime that could land on CBS. Marketers can judge in early to mid-January, when options come open to move previous ad commitments around or even ask for cash back.
The upfront has shown signs of erosion for the past two years. Johnson & Johnson gained notice by not taking part in the May brouhaha so it could deploy marketing dollars closer to the timing of its business planning. One major goal of NBC Universal’s new ad-sales chief, Mike Pilot, is to get advertisers to talk to the network much earlier in the cycle about ways to tie their promotional messages to various TV programs.
If the networks manage to do deals in a series of individual meetings, freed up from the pressure of getting all of the deals done following group presentations, marketers and agencies may decide they like that way of doing business better.
The strike could simply accelerate recognition that consumers don’t “revolve around prime-time and the networks’ new seasons anymore,” said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer for WPP Group’s GroupM media-buying consortium. With people using DVRs and watching programming online, a better system of buying and selling needs to be put in place. If the strike were to help people see that, he said, “That might actually be a silver lining.”
The longer the strike lingers, however, the tougher it will be for everyone who makes their living off TV shows, especially if advertisers and viewers get used to the alternatives they find while the two sides haggle. “The audience has been going other places, anyway,” Ms. Barbee said. “We’re all playing with fire and we don’t a have lot of margin for error.”
Claude Brodesser-Akner contributed to this report.
Click here for complete coverage of the strike.

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