The annual upfront week, when the networks unveil their fall schedules while wining, dining and dazzling prospective buyers with star-studded parties, is normally a contest over ad dollars. But this time Fox has fired a major salvo over something as seemingly innocuous as a day of the week.
News Corp.'s Fox, which usually caps the week with a Thursday-afternoon presentation and a subsequent -- and very popular -- party, told Ad Age it plans to shift its event to Monday. It cited, among other things, concern that next year's finale of the country's top-rated show, "American Idol" could disrupt its ability to put on a good presentation. A move would surely ruffle the feathers of Peacock Network NBC, which for the past decade has usually hosted its presentation on -- you guessed it -- Monday.
This year, NBC changed the game itself by announcing its "outfront" -- a year-round program schedule announced ahead of rivals in April, but the network still had its Monday in the sun during upfront week.
On its face, this day-tripping might not seem like a big deal. But within the broadcast TV community, it's a fairly serious breach for the industry's annual ritual that has long been governed by an ersatz "gentlemen's agreement" among the networks. NBC has largely staked a claim to Monday for at least 10 years, when it was the No. 1 network among adults 18 to 49 (it's now fallen to No. 4, albeit an innovative fourth).
Preserving Hamptons trips
Today, the lead-network bragging rights are held by Fox -- which could easily explain its swagger. But despite its reputation for maintaining the stance of a hard-nosed, entrepreneurial upstart, Fox insists it is not hounding its rival by moving its presentation to May 18, 2009.
The network claims that because of the way the calendar falls, holding a Thursday-afternoon presentation would land on the eve of Memorial Day weekend -- awkward timing for the teeming masses headed out to the Hamptons. And then there are the fetes it's planning tied to the finale of "Idol," which is expected to take place during the middle of upfront week.
"You want to make sure that the advertisers get a really great presentation and the party that they all love, and doing that on Thursday night when the Friday weekend is starting the next day is inconvenient for them," said Fox spokesman Scott Grogin.
Adding insult to injury for NBC -- which declined to comment for this story -- the News Corp. network is also considering holding its presentation next year at Radio City Music Hall, a venue often used by NBC, according to people familiar with the situation. Mr. Grogin said the network has not announced a location yet.
The decision to move the upfront date was made by Tony Vinciquerra, president-CEO Fox Networks Group; Peter Liguori, Fox Broadcasting's chairman-entertainment; Kevin Reilly, Fox Broadcasting's president-entertainment; and Jon Nesvig, Fox Broadcasting's president-sales, said Mr. Grogin, adding that it "germinated" with Mr. Nesvig.
Whether the maneuver has any impact on NBC or on the psychology of media buyers remains to be seen. "There's no right or wrong," said Shari Cohen, president and co-executive director of national broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "The most important thing is that we walk away feeling confident in the direction [the networks] are heading in, that their product is good and that they are smart about using all of their assets."
Even so, the move is likely to change the tenor and pace of the week. Fox's Thursday-night party has long been seen as a highlight of the upfront, particularly among the industry's younger employees. Most senior media-agency honchos attend as well.
And media buyers have been put off in the past when Fox's events haven't met a certain standard. No less than Irwin Gotlieb, CEO of WPP's Group M, was heard grousing in 2006 when some Fox upfront attendees were stranded out on the sidewalk in the rain, that the event ran too long in a warm auditorium and the after-party was woefully overcrowded.
As it did this year, Fox intends to run a more traditional event in 2009, said Mr. Grogin. "This year, just the timing will be different," he said. "We still plan to do a concise presentation followed by a really outstanding party."