At the midweek point last week, media buyers reported ABC was willing to do deals on "live-plus-same-day" ratings, rather than "live-plus-seven" ratings, a position Mike Shaw, ABC president-sales and marketing, had committed to at the start of the upfront period.
Mr. Shaw has widely been expected to set the pace for this year's upfront market. But media buyers say he is now more open to other possibilities, maybe because of the risk that rivals will jump in and start doing business while he's still negotiating over the live-plus issue. If so, someone else-perhaps Fox President-Sales Jon Nesvig, who can point to a just-finished triumphant season, winning the 18-to-49 demographic race-could set the tone for the market and grab share too.
Nielsen Media Research began issuing three streams of data in December: live, reflecting people actually viewing in the moment; live plus same day, or viewing played back before 3 a.m. the next morning; and live plus seven days.
For the past two weeks, agencies have been deadlocked as to which stream of data to use as a starting point for cost-per-thousand rate negotiations. Agencies believe there's not enough data yet to start upfront talks based on anything but "live." The media-buying agencies have been firm and united in that stance. That has left the networks in something of a "Deal or No Deal" situation, with agencies waving the proverbial suitcases full of money at network sales executives, and lowballing on CPM rates to see who'll break first.
According to agencies, ABC has talked about doing deals on a "live plus same day" basis, but then offered to backtrack even further if the industry ultimately decides to deal on live-only ratings. If that happens, the network would grant additional ad units to make up the difference. ABC had no comment.
ABC's firm stance
It's easy to see why ABC had taken such a firm stance: The network has three of the top four shows in a just-released list from Nielsen Media Research of the biggest gainers in seven-day DVR playback. For the May 8 sweeps week, Nielsen found that the Tuesday edition of Fox's "American Idol" was the most time-shifted show, adding 450,000 households in the seven-day playback.
Media-buying agencies don't want to pay for DVR viewers because they believe most are skipping the ads. That's also why some are pressing for minute-by-minute ratings, or commercial ratings, as ratings currency.
Nielsen, meanwhile, freely admits that its DVR sample is only at about half of what it should be. Its national people-meter sample consists of 9,800 households, and 6% of those have a DVR. But estimates peg DVR households at 12% of all TV households. Of the 6% in Nielsen's sample with a DVR, only 1% actively time-shifts, which means Nielsen projects around a million people in the general population don't watch live. By year's end, Nielsen hopes its DVR sample will be at 12%, but by then, it's possible DVR households will be closer to 18%, so Nielsen will still be behind.
CBS fielding offers
Even with ABC softening somewhat, buyers who spoke to Ad Age late last week suggested the network still isn't doing much business, while CBS is fielding offers. That leads some to believe the Eye network is also no longer looking to base talks on "live plus seven."
One TV executive with knowledge of the talks said, "Agencies have submitted budgets and have made some low-ball offers." This executive suggested agencies were playing CBS against ABC, lowballing both to see which would break. Despite the activity, CBS is said to have rejected offers that were at negative CPM rates. CBS did not return calls by press time.
Fox is poised to pounce on the movie marketers and automakers that seem ready to come to the table. Those categories are traditionally the early movers in the upfront. However, "the key to the upfront is still ABC," said this executive, who believes whatever CPM rates that network accepts will set the bar for everyone else.