TV Market Slow to Start as Networks, Agencies Wrangle Over Ratings

Upfront Money Waits Until Agreement Over How to Count DVR Viewers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For upfront watchers looking for an early vibe on the market, signs of positive momentum are few, as media agencies and broadcast networks posture over a whole host of issues, none more important than which ratings currency will be used to negotiate deals: "live only" or "live plus."
Networks want to negotiate using 'live plus' ratings, which add up all the viewers watching a show, even if its seven days later, thanks to digital video recorders, but there isn't a media buyer on Madison Avenue who will admit to buying anything for marketers except 'live.'
Networks want to negotiate using 'live plus' ratings, which add up all the viewers watching a show, even if its seven days later, thanks to digital video recorders, but there isn't a media buyer on Madison Avenue who will admit to buying anything for marketers except 'live.'

Some media agency executives say they're not likely to move on the upfront market until such issues are resolved. There isn't a media buyer on Madison Avenue who will admit to buying anything for marketers except "live," which refers to the Nielsen Media Research sample that tallies audience viewing as programs air.

Negotiating 'live plus'
Networks want to negotiate using "live plus" ratings, which add up all the viewers watching a show, even if its seven days later, thanks to digital video recorders. "I don't think we're going to be too worried. We can do it on a scatter basis. They [broadcast] need money upfront, they need to secure money," said one major agency executive before cryptically adding: "There are other discussions about how to look at the ratings."

A second media buyer said he thought his agency was on the verge of a breakthrough with a network, but declined to elaborate for fear of scuttling delicate talks.

When asked about potential compromise talks, executives on the buy and sell sides have suggested that "the live plus same day" data might offer some common ground. Those viewers would at least have seen the show in playback mode within 24 hours of its airdate, rather than a week later, as the networks are pushing for.

Other marketers sitting out
The executive from the major agency hinted that Johnson & Johnson might not be the only top marketer looking to limit its role in this year's upfront market as a result of the rating issue. "Every marketer we have talked to here we have put in contingency plans [for]. If we feel we need to hold money out we will. We need to maintain that flexibility."

There is a feeling among agency executives that while marketers can afford to wait, the broadcast networks will be under much greater pressure to sel their inventory, and sooner rather than later. "I think they will have too much to lose by not getting deals written. They need to know the revenue picture," one buyer said.

A leg up for cable?
One would think the standoff could give a leg up to cable, which most viewers watch live rather than through playback. One buyer said serious negotiations were taking place with major cable programmers as buyers waited for things to happen on the broadcast front, but few cable executives who spoke to Advertising Age thought they could set the market alone, with most holding the view that broadcast network ABC has to move first. Some cable execs, hitched to parent companies that also own broadcast networks, said they would have to fall in line with their TV brethren on the "live" debate.

But, ratings aside, any slowness in the market is also a product of timing: The networks' upfront presentations to buyers ended just days ago, and few have had time to chew over the schedules and grab time to watch some pilots.

No buy specs yet
But there are signs the process is likely to be more prolonged this year. Buyers were late getting budgets from clients and then registering them with the broadcast networks. One buyer said he didn't have "buy specs" together. Buy specs indicate to the broadcast networks a marketer's gross ratings points goals, show preferences and which weeks of the year the marketer needs to be on air.

"I don't have any rate cards yet from the CW and Fox, and we're all anticipating a schedule change from NBC. It's kind of crazy," the buyer said.

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Abbey Klaassen contributed to this report.
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