The argument over whether to count time-shifted viewers already figured to play a major part in ad negotiations in the coming weeks, but the quality and level of counter-programming seen in upfront presentations last week will serve to bait the bulls and the bears set to face off on opposing sides of the live-viewing argument.
|Photo: Donna Svennevik|
|ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson cha-chas across the stage during the network's upfront presentation. Click to see larger photo.
The super-lucrative Thursday 9 p.m. slot epitomizes the problem, as it sees at least three of the networks' brightest hopes going up against each other and looks sure to send consumers to their DVRs and Internet browsers -- with the potential consequence that many of the ads in these expensive shows end up getting zapped.
And the challenge for buyers picking among the shows extends beyond Thursday. With so many high-quality dramas sprinkled throughout the week, (like ABC's "Brothers and Sisters" Fox's "Vanished," CBS's "Jericho" and NBC "Kidnapped"), it looks as if each network is trying to program for appointment viewing -- and perhaps their digital futures -- making it difficult for buyers to decide where to spend their $9 billion or so dollars. (Click here to view full fall schedule.)
NBC's brightest hope
The Thursday-night strategies of the networks reflect their positions overall. NBC desperately needs to rebuild, so it put its brightest hope, the Aaron Sorkin drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" there, following its fledgling comedy block of "My Name is Earl" and "The Office."
ABC, meanwhile, has all the buzz, mainly due to three strong shows. With plenty of holes to plug in its lineup, it decided to anchor female-friendly "Grey's Anatomy" in that slot, and hope it brings viewers in to its two new comedy series leading into it. With 10 other new shows on its schedule, ABC needs to hold on to its already-established beachheads, namely Sunday night's "Desperate Housewives" and Wednesday night's "Lost.
CBS underscored its confident "you can count on us" positioning with the decision to leave last season's Thursday night winner, "CSI," on its perch.
Fox briefly considered moving its ratings juggernaut, "American Idol," to Thursdays, but then stuck to its guns and left teen-drawing "The O.C." there. The CW wants to battle Fox for the teen audience, and put one of its strongest draws, "Supernatural," up against "The O.C."
Households using TV
Not everyone sees the Thursday-night fight as a downer for advertisers. The additional competition could raise households using TV (HUT) levels to everyone's advantage. "I see Thursday as an opportunity for growth," said Bill McOwen, MPG's exec VP-director, national broadcast. "There are three or four distinct audiences being served and an ability to get Thursday back on top of the heap. This is a night that used to dominate from a viewership standpoint and no one wanted to program against it. Now everyone's putting their top guns here and that's a great thing."
Perhaps one of the overarching stories is that the growth of digital platforms appears to be heralding an all-around improvement in the quality of shows making it to air. The networks, with an eye toward subscription and advertising revenue from video-on-demand platforms, were top-heavy with expensive dramas that looked like they could be movies in their own right.
"Prime-time programming is about copycats, and right now it's about high-intensity dramas," said Shari Cohen, co-president of broadcast at MindShare. "There's only so many of those shows viewers can watch in a week." Andy Jung, Kellogg North America's senior director-advertising and marketing saw a stark choice for advertisers: "It was either comedy or dark." Indeed, reality, game shows and news magazines were pretty absent from the 2006-2007 network grids.
Distribution is new king
What all those shows have in common as well is a storyline that plays out nicely across many different sizes of screens. "The big story is multiplatform," said Peter Gardiner, partner and chief media officer at Deutsch. "The networks are realizing that the network model is not the powerhouse anymore, it's the distribution strategy for their content."
Compared to last year, when digital offerings were just a blip on the big screen, this upfront all the networks emphasized their ability to play in the game. NBC is experimenting with several different online formats from animated comics that follow the storyline of "Heroes," one of its new dramas, to the promise it would premiere at least four programs from each of its broadcast and cable programs online. But NBC CEO Jeff Zucker came under criticism from buyers for devoting too much time during the presentation to the subject.
By contrast, ABC TV President Anne Sweeney, who has shepherded ABC into a leadership position in digital, spent relatively little time on the subject. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves touted his group's wide digital distribution-from Google to Verizon V-Cast, though not all are ad-supported-and touted Sportsline's March Madness on Demand as "the biggest live sports event in the history of the Internet." His reality check? Hit programs will drive digital adoption. "Wireless is useless if you're hitless," he said. Fox, meanwhile, rolled out Ross Levinsohn, president of Fox Interactive Media, who talked about how the "future arrived for us over a year ago" in a flurry of acquisitions that included social-media force MySpace.com. In April, he said, 75 million people visited Fox's network of sites.