We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Upfront Program

Most May Presentations Will Go on Despite Doubt Raised During the Strike

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- During the three months the writers were on strike, media buyers and marketers talked about how this was the moment when the broadcast networks could change their traditional ways of doing business, starting with the 40-year-old ritual of putting on upfront presentations in mid-May. But just days after the strike ended, it was business as usual. Four out of the five broadcast networks last week said they will go ahead with plans for their presentations.

While CBS was parsimonious about the details of its May 14 Carnegie Hall event, Mike Shaw, president-sales for ABC, suggested his May 13 event might contain "less hoopla" than in the past, because the Walt Disney network is bringing back a large portion of its current schedule. Given that marketers will be familiar with most of its programs, he suggested, a meeting might tackle other topics, including how the commercial ratings advertisers and TV networks agreed to last year are progressing.

Fox will hold its event on May 15. A person familiar with plans said the presentation will be short and business-like and, like ABC, less of a song-and-dance routine. The CW also plans to hold its event earlier in the day on May 15.

An NBC spokeswoman said, "Changes will be made to this year's upfront. Plans are under way." A person familiar with the situation said NBC is looking at a "new and creative approach" to the event. The network plans to reveal plans this week. Networks meet with advertisers constantly, not just at the big May upfront events. But these presentations get the most attention -- exactly because their glamour quotients have risen exponentially in recent years. Whether these events are appropriate has become a matter of debate as more advertisers express a desire to spend in order to keep with their business plans and as networks launch more programs in the spring and summer.

'Pretty irrelevant'
For some major marketers, the events are just icing on a more important cake. "The big presentations in May are pretty irrelevant for me," said Jon Stimmel, director-media buying for Unilever. "It's about the work that goes into it before that -- meeting with the networks, talking about the new programs they have on the slate and bringing in the brand people and identifying the ways they buy TV. Even meeting with senior-level executives, producers and writers to see however that might translate from a buying and planning perspective."

Buyers also say they want lots of information, and could take or leave the party atmosphere that is so much a part of these events. Steve Kalb, senior VP-director of broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen, said the upfront presentations are still a good place for marketers to get a fairly broad perspective of the networks' offerings in a consolidated time period. He pointed to Fox's streamlining of its presentation from nearly three hours in 2006 to 60 minutes last year as a particularly strong achievement. But the rest of the upfront process is fairly immaterial to him. "They can forget their cocktail parties and all that," he said.

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker has fanned the flames somewhat, saying in late January at the annual meeting of the National Association of Television Program Executives that the upfront in its current form "is a vestige of the last decade." He added: "The upfronts were first established for automakers to lock up commercial time back in the 1950s. That business of the business remains the same. But do we really need the big show in order to do that? We are not so sure anymore." Instead, he said, the network could meet with smaller groups of advertisers.

Meanwhile, some cable outlets see business as usual for upfront season. Kicking things off will be Nickelodeon, with an event on March 13. If last year's show is any indication, expect cameos from stars such as Spongebob and Dora, as well as surprise performances from the network's own ad sales team. Jim Tricarico, senior VP-TV ad sales for Nickelodeon, used his "J.T." initials to spoof Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back" in a showy dance number that included the line, "Media people, you see these numbers and it ain't no lie."

Going to MOMA
Following closely behind will be a pair of events from NBC Universal cable stations. Sci-Fi will host a soiree at the Morgan Library on March 18, preceded by a press conference for the final season of "Battlestar Galactica." USA Network will follow the next week with a presentation at the Modern, the restaurant adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art, on March 26.

Also feting the ad community at MOMA is the Hallmark Channel, which will host its event one night prior to USA's on March 25. That same day, the Scripps Networks (which include Food Network and HGTV) will kick off a series of eight major-market upfront presentations in Boston. The road show will hit New York the morning of April 8 with a breakfast at Cipriani.

Other stations going ahead with their dog-and-pony shows this year include Cartoon Network (April 3, at Manhattan's Terminal 5), Discovery (April 23 at Jazz at Lincoln Center) and ESPN, which is eyeing the same mid-May slot as last year, when it scheduled its event the same week as the broadcast nets.

The Turner entertainment networks, TBS, TNT and the recently rebranded TruTV, have yet to formalize plans but are expected to proceed in a similar manner to last year's traveling presentations. The same is true for the MTV networks, for which a spokesman confirmed, "We have several events and road shows in the planning stages across the company right now."

But not everyone is holding events. Cable networks that held individual agency presentations for the last few years -- an industry standard until recently -- will continue to stick to their plans. Among those are the Comcast networks (including E!, G4 and Vs.), Rainbow Media networks (including AMC, WE TV and Fuse), Bravo and Comedy Central. Of the latter, Jeff Lucas, exec VP-ad sales for MTV's entertainment networks, said he has never been a fan of having showy upfront events unless the network has something unique to say. "We really feel if you want to get a message across, you want to put the right people across the table from each other. In terms of programmers and clients, the exchange of information is more useful instead of talking at someone."
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