It's a puzzling disappearing act -- TV dollars that were held back in the summer's upfront negotiations aren't making their way back into the marketplace the way network executives had hoped. And the time for that money to reappear is quickly running out.
The biggest excuse for the lackluster upfront -- the annual process when TV networks secure a bulk of their advertising commitments for the approaching season -- was almost unanimously that marketers were holding onto their money to spend closer to air date. Such "flexibility" was all but the motto of this season's deal-making. But as the key holiday season bears down, networks are still waiting for those budgets to show up in a meaningful way.
While ad sales executives and media buyers say some money is certainly finding its way back into TV, it's not near the levels some of them expected. And perhaps more money than expected is also moving into other media such as digital video.
"It's still quiet in the fourth quarter," said Steve Kalb, who leads national TV buying for Mullen. "Nothing is coming back in any real volume." Mr. Kalb added that it has been easy for advertisers to buy last-minute ad inventory, and clients are getting good deals.
"We are seeing some scatter money return, but it's not enough to offset what didn't come in the upfront," said Catherine Warburton, chief investment officer, Assembly. "We are not going to see all that money come back as marketers put it to the bottom line and move it to different media."
Some saw a more positive picture for networks. "There is some money in the scatter market, probably just about the amount we thought there would be. The money that is coming in is much closer to air date for sure," Michael Law, exec VP-managing director for video investment at Amplifi US, part of the Dentsu Aegis Network, said in an email.
"Overall, pricing has been at [or] just above the upfront market. There is a good supply story overall with the new seasons ratings doing well."
But the ad dollars that are coming back are doing so in waves, according to another media buyer. "It is less than what was expected in the upfronts and it's getting divided amongst multiple platforms," the buyer said. "There's just as much money going into digital."
As a result, the buyer said some networks are getting concerned and trolling for money.
Pacing is surely slower than several TV executives said they would have liked, but that could simply be the new reality of the market.
"Advertisers have a tremendous amount of options and are really planning month to month," said Mel Berning, chief revenue officer, A&E Networks. "They will see the sales numbers at the end of the month and then plan for the next two to three weeks."
Mr. Berning noted that money is being registered and that rates are healthy, but "not double-digits" in terms of percentage growth.
The ad money may yet be returning, some said. "Things are slow, but don't mistake slow for not happening," another TV ad sales executive said. "Money is being spent closer to air in a way that's never before been seen."
The real test will be post-Thanksgiving. "If you get past Thanksgiving and into Dec. 1 and still not seeing that money come back, then you have to question whether things will be more modest than you think," the executive added.
"It won't be until the next four weeks before we get a clear picture," Mr. Berning said. "I can't tell you right now we have a definitive sense of how it will shake out. It will be into the month of December before we have a good read."
But no one is predicting an especially robust scatter market at this point.
"If there was a windfall coming in the fourth quarter you would have heard about it already," Mr. Kalb said.