Editorial: Strong Upfront Shows Networks’ Confidence

May 11, 2008  •  Post A Comment

It may not be the same kind of upfront week as the television industry has thrown in past years.
But it ought to be.
Broadcast television networks are facing difficult times. Continued ratings erosion points to an ebbing of the medium’s cultural relevance. The Writers Guild of America strike disrupted production of shows, alienating fans. One of the most influential analysts on Wall Street predicts upfront sales will decline 2% to 14% this year.
Last year, networks laudably trimmed the length of their Broadway show-style presentations. But the excitement was there. The glitz was there. Of course, there was lots of news about programming, and the extravaganzas kicked off ad sales.
It’s a mistake, however, to consider the upfront as a sales event alone. It’s more. It’s a marketing event for TV. Marketing that isn’t directed to sponsors alone—it’s also aimed at the public. It’s a huge press event that generates headlines and spurs widespread interest in TV.
This year, ABC is holding subdued meetings at which the network will roll out its fall schedule.
NBC is throwing a different kind of upfront program that will showcase its stars for the consumption of the press. Fox and CBS are hearkening back to the customary extravaganzas, and The CW is throwing a cocktail party.
One could characterize the less-dazzling presentations as networks facing facts and adapting to a world where programming cycles and cost awareness militate against big-budget upfront affairs.
But strategically, backing off now sends a message of weakness when the message more than ever needs to convey strength.
The networks’ parent media companies should understand that creating some sizzle around their broadcast networks is more important than ever.
It may be difficult to quantify return on investment in upfront events that pop, but the cost of accelerating broadcast TV’s slow fade is easy to imagine in the long term.
Network executives may shy away from throwing upfront events where they don’t have much new news to unveil, fearing the press will ignore them or offer negative coverage. But that assumption ignores a fact of life that entertainment companies now share with news organizations: They both are struggling to keep the public’s attention.
If you build the upfront, the press will come, and audiences are more likely to follow.

One Comment

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