Networks Revisit Upfront, Pilot Plans

Jan 27, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The Writers Guild of America strike has the networks considering changing the way they conduct the upfront and ad buyers saying they’d miss pilots more than they’d miss the jumbo shrimp.
NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker said NBC was close to pulling the plug on its annual upfront extravaganza at which ad buyers snack on shrimp and snap Polaroids with TV stars. He also said the network probably would stop shooting as many pilots as it develops new series.
Other networks are re-evaluating their upfront plans in the face of a protracted strike, which would preclude them from having new shows to present to buyers in May.
While some of the changes may be only for this season, others may be permanent.
Media buyers said some of the changes might be for the better and worth keeping.
“I don’t think you need the big ‘Here are the stars and the shrimp and the fun,’” said Steve Lanzano, chief operating officer of MPG. “I think what I would do is individual agency meetings, and I think that would probably go much farther.”
John Miles, director of media investment at MediaCom, said he thought the big schedule presentations still serve a purpose.
“You connect with the community at large, which includes clients,” Mr. Miles said. “It can create some positive momentum. Does it have to be $20 shrimp? I’m sure it doesn’t. But you know want? It’s a people business. It’s a social business, it’s a relationship business, and part of relationship-building happens at those parties.”
To John Swift, managing director at PHD U.S., losing the network development meetings due to the strike may be a bigger loss than the upfront bashes.
“I felt the programming development meetings are a lot more strategic in nature,” Mr. Swift said. “I think that’s the information that helps you make your decisions, or your recommendations to your clients, before you go into the upfront process.”
While the big parties the networks hold to unveil their new schedules may be disposable, the upfront ad sales mechanism remains valuable to both buyers and sellers, they said.
“The upfront still has benefits for both sides,” said Mr. Swift. For advertisers, those benefits include price advantages, the ability to secure spots when you need them and ratings guarantees.
“The biggest problem with the upfront right now is really the timing,” Mr. Swift said. “A calendar-year upfront would be the best way to go,” and the strike could push the ad sales market from May to September, when marketers have a better handle on their spending plans for the year ahead.
If the timing doesn’t change, the agencies still could buy network advertising in May, even if programs and schedules aren’t set.
Mr. Lanzano said, “It really is becoming a GRP futures market” in which advertisers buy gross ratings points rather than shows because schedules change so much after the fourth quarter.
Buying ratings points might be cheaper than buying shows, he said, although the programs that bring in big numbers will continue to carry a premium, he said.
“GRPs are a function of the show, scheduling, competition, historical performance, etc., so I’m not sure how you assess the value of a time period unless you know the show,” Mr. Miles said. “I think it would be worth less, absolutely, but the problem is the market is supply-/demand-driven,” and demand “seems to be continuing unabated.”
Mr. Miles also would like to continue to see pilots of series before he makes advertising investments.
“We understand the economics, we understand the reality, but we are buying shows for audience delivery and environmental capability, and in order to make some of those decisions, you’ve got to see the program,” Mr. Miles said. “The bait-and-switch is that we know that what we see is not necessarily what is going to end up on the schedule, but I think it gives us a flavor of the sort of direction that the network is heading in. And so I think pilots give you some good information about a network’s sensibility.”
Shari Anne Brill, VP of programming at Carat, said she would have problems doing her job without pilots.
“I don’t know what any of these guys have in development and I like going to those meetings so I have an idea of what’s new and coming out,” Ms. Brill said. “They’re going to have to have something to show us or describe because we have to do our [audience] estimates. What do I estimate on? I need to see some form of an attempt at a schedule.”
For now, buyers will be keeping an eye on the performance of the alternative schedules cobbled together by the networks in the wake of the strike. Those schedules include a large dose of reality, a genre that has become more advertiser-friendly with shows such as “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “Deal or No Deal.”
“What we’re all going to be watching really closely is if the networks are going to be fighting for ratings—and they’re going to be filling a lot more hours—are they going to go back to the salacious, shock-driven reality programming that gave this genre the stigma it’s been trying to shake for the last few years?” Mr. Swift said.
“I think everyone is scrambling to think, ‘What are my alternatives?’” Mr. Miles said. “‘How do I deliver critical mass if I’m faced with a scenario where I really don’t know what much of the programming environment is going to be?’”
They’ll also be watching the economy.
“I think, yes, people are watching the stock market and Fed interest rate moves, and I think people are concerned. We are in the consumer spending business, fundamentally,” Mr. Miles said.
“I think in the current dynamic in which we exist, folks are spending money, clients are spending money, marketplaces are relatively robust in a national arena,” he said. “And part of that is driven by the supply issue and performance issues at the networks, which could be exacerbated if the strike prolongs and begins to disrupt programming in a major way.”


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