'Tis the Season

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TV's so-called "Fall Season" is becoming a yearlong event.

ABC, CBS, and NBC's combined share of television viewers has decreased from 50 percent to 23 percent over the past 20 years.

Labor Day, originally intended as a tribute to the American worker, has come to symbolize so much more: An end to summer, the start of the school year, and of course, the much-anticipated return of "Must-See TV."

After almost 40 years, TV's "Fall Season" has become as much a part of our culture as, well, Labor Day. But lately, the networks seem to be quietly recognizing that fall isn't the only season worth owning. The success of shows such as CBS' Survivor, this summer, and Fox's January launch of Malcolm in the Middle, have helped advance the idea that TV is a medium for all seasons. Increased competition from the Internet and from cable networks - which debuted a total of 20 new series between June and September last year alone - has led to an erosion of network viewership across the board, giving execs even more impetus to uncover new scheduling niches.

While there have always been mid-season replacement shows, intended to act as understudies for fall premieres that tank, media folk say that networks are now hyping more, and better quality, fillers than ever before. Twenty-eight mid-season replacements are already on the back burners of the six networks, compared with last year's 21 shows. And many, like NBC's Semper Fi, to be directed by Steven Spielberg, are already getting big media play.

ABC, for example, has seven new series planned for this year, but only four will debut in the fall. The rest will be rolled out gradually, using spots during the network's ace show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, to promote them. Co-chairmen Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun reportedly explained at their May "Upfront" presentation - during which the network showcased its intended line-up for media buyers - that this strategy gives them the advantage of unveiling their new shows in an "uncluttered" environment. "The networks are putting more weight on what's coming down the pike to display to clients how deep their programming production efforts really are," says Mike Greco, manager of broadcast research at Optimum Media Direction ( OMD).

The networks also appear to be making a conscious effort to hold back some quality programs that show promise, instead of launching them all at once, says Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcom Worldwide. "We are moving toward a 52-week programming schedule," she says.

As the networks make an attempt to stretch their season beyond the fall, has the Upfront - the harried week in May when media buyers commit the bulk of their clients' annual ad dollars based on a now increasingly changing fall schedule - lost its value in the marketplace? It's a question that has been much debated. But the answer, from all parties involved - advertisers, buyers, and networks - appears to be a resounding, but spiritless, "No."

"I have no idea how else we'd do it," says John Lazarus, senior vice president, director of national broadcast operations at TN Media. It's a system that has been in place since the early days of TV, and for all its headaches, gets the job done, proponents argue. Networks get their money in advance, advertisers get a guaranteed yearlong eyeball count, and media buyers get their budgets settled early and insure that their clients have a presence on the best shows, at the best price.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, explains Aaron Cohen, executive vice president, director of broadcast at Horizon Media. The Upfront gives advertisers a guaranteed audience, so more of them are willing to pay a premium for that guarantee. And as more advertisers spend the bulk of their money up front - last year approximately 90 percent of all prime time TV ad dollars was committed prior to the Fall Season - there is less inventory in the scatter, or spot, market. So whatever is left gets more expensive - 15 percent to 25 percent more expensive, say buyers - leaving the Upfront as the cheaper way to go.

But most agree that there's got to be a better way. "There is a reason for the Upfront, but that doesn't mean it isn't an unconscionable way to do business," says Erwin Ephron, media consultant at Ephron, Papazian & Ephron. He estimates that this year alone, advertisers will spend $250 million extra in prime time by buying up front. "Everyone fears they won't be able to buy the right stuff at the right price if they wait," he says. "But the truth is, there's third-quarter inventory right now, and no buyers. If the market was sold quarter by quarter, things would be much more rational because buyers would have a much better feel of the marketplace."

Such a system may make more sense, especially given the ever-increasing turnover rate of new shows. Just seven weeks into last year's Fall Season, nine of the 38 shows announced during the Upfront were cancelled or put on hiatus, according to Paula Barra, research supervisor at OMD. During the 1998-99 TV season, only five shows met the same fate. Yet, some argue that regardless of how many new programs come and go throughout the year, the Upfront will thrive because the system itself has nothing to do with individual shows. "TV is not show business, it's a message delivery system for advertisers," says Ephron. "The Upfront is not about programming, it's about making a deal early."

Right now, the Upfront is conducted with such speed and aggressiveness that there is little time or incentive to talk about anything beyond the fall, says Shelley Watson, vice president and media director at Starcom. But eventually, Watson argues, a year-round schedule of "fall-quality" premieres will force more buyers and networks to talk about mid-season buys in more concrete terms during the Upfront.

For better or worse, no matter how the TV schedule changes in the coming years, the Fall Season, and its Upfront, are here to stay. "We've been hearing since at least the 1980s that we need to change the system because the networks are killing each other by all premiering at the same time," says Tim Brooks, a television historian and senior vice president of research at Lifetime Television. "But they are all caught in a big fly trap - no one is brave enough to get out. Everyone wants to be the one network to be premiering in September alone."

Yeah, like that will happen.

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