Take the case of Ira Berger, who oversees broadcast buying at Richards Group, Dallas. One of his clients, Zale Corp.'s Zales jewelry stores, needs to advertise on TV to drive sales for the coming holiday season. But the longer the strike continues, the more repeats and reality programs are likely to surface on network TV, and the stronger the chance of declines in audience -- meaning Zales wouldn't reach the number of consumers it had hoped before Christmas arrives.
"What the networks are doing is the obvious thing: They are trying to take care of the more time-sensitive advertisers, but they are very limited in what they can do," Mr. Berger said.
The strike by the Writers Guild of America -- which started last week -- seems to leave few people in winning positions. Normally, advertisers might seek "make-goods," or additional ad time to make up for the fact that fewer people saw the ads when they originally aired. But the market for "scatter" advertising, or ad time that is bought on an as-needed basis, has been extremely tight in recent months.
And it could be getting tighter, causing more problems if the strike is prolonged. Next year brings the first presidential election in decades without an incumbent president or vice president, and Matt O'Mara, managing director of the Detroit-area office of Davinci Selectworks, said he expects both political parties to spend heavily on TV ads. The result is that the networks may not have that much inventory available to give back for ratings hiccups. Even so, buyers probably will begin making more demands on the networks and will have the biggest chance to make their voices heard in early 2008, when options open for reallocating money committed for the second quarter.
"There is definitely concern that the schedules and the purchase that we made have the potential of being devalued," one media buyer said. "If all of a sudden we're looking at a lot of heavy reality and a lot of reruns, it's obviously not what everybody paid for. There will definitely be some going back to the networks to try to figure out what the value is."
Davinci Selectworks' Mr. O'Mara said the media-planning firm, which works for Mitsubishi, is re-evaluating all its TV buys, both short and long term, due to the writers strike. "Entire plans are being looked at," he said.
If the strike continues through the fourth quarter, it will hurt critical new-auto-model launches and retailers' holiday pushes, he said.
Others are holding off on making adjustments. Lisa Herdman, associate director of network buying for Honda at RPA, is not recommending any changes to current plans for fourth-quarter scatter buys. There are already enough factors working against the buying community, she said. "All the networks are still trying to make good on last year's [buys]. We're still not sure what the C3 ratings are, and they're already holding back inventory based on that."