Fox INT'L UPFRONT TV BUYS: PIPEDREAM OR REALITY?

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An upfront marketplace appears to be emerging for international media deals. Well, sort of, depending on who you talk to.

At least one multinational media sales organization, ESPN International, is experiencing a formal upfront, the buying period when advertisers commit to long-term-usually annual-media buys prior to the start of a new season.

Two others, Turner International and NBC, are seeing the emergence of an informal upfront. In this case, some advertisers make small annual or multi-quarter commitments prior to a season.

Others, including MTV and most multinational media buyers contacted by Advertising Age International, say a true upfront won't evolve any time soon. At least not as an upfront market is commonly known in the U.S.

There, major advertisers traditionally commit the majority of their national TV dollars for broadcast, cable and syndicated TV programming, well in advance of the broadcast season.

The buys are made between early spring and late summer for the TV year beginning in fall. The marketplace evolved out of a demand for a finite supply of ad time on U.S. TV outlets.

With the exception of a few high-demand international TV events-such as the high-profile sports distributed by ESPN-most buyers and sellers say upfront demand is not yet a factor in international media.

The fact that buyers and sellers are even talking about an international upfront is a healthy sign even though it's hard to come up with any kind of monetary value. If it follows the pattern of the U.S. marketplace, it could represent a signficant share of international ad budgets.

In the U.S., TV advertisers generally commit upwards of 75% of their national TV dollars upfront and reserve the balance for quarterly "scatter" markets throughout the season.

The size of the U.S. upfront and the percentage of ad budgets placed in the market varies year to year based on perceived demand, but for the upcoming 1994-95 TV season, U.S. advertisers are estimated to have spent about $4.5 billion upfront on network prime time TV alone.

"International and pan-regional buys are new to a lot of advertisers, but the marketplace is beginning to develop a formal structure. People are starting to think about making multi-quarter buys," said Nan Richards, Turner senior VP-international. "There are advertisers that will buy 1995 at the end of this year for the full [upcoming] year. It's becoming more prevalent."

"In some ways, it's the beginning of an informal upfront," agreed Thomas Rogers, president, NBC Cable and Business Development, who oversees NBC's international expansion efforts.

"It's a function of demand, but also one of communications. Right now, we're not at the point, as buyers and sellers, to pull together the disparate elements of international media deals. We need to create a new kind of buying apparatus for that."

That's not the case for ESPN though, where high demand has established more traditional upfront demand for a finite supply of big multinational media events, such as the U.S. Super Bowl and NBA finals, Brazilian soccer, Formula One racing or the Tour de France bicycle race.

"It may be that we happen to have the events on our international networks that happen to sell out very quickly, but an upfront has been established for ESPN," said Michael B. Fox, ESPN director of international advertising sales.

It's not so much a calendar event, the way it is in the U.S., as it is advertisers making annual commitments throughout the year to secure key programming events, he said. However, most deals occur in late summer and early fall, after the conclusion of the U.S. cable upfront.

International is not superseding U.S. network TV upfront, but it is a component ESPN never had before, said Mr. Fox.

Multinational media buyers acknowledge that ESPN and a few other global media events, such as the Olympics, have taken on the aura of an upfront market, but say they are exceptions.

"An international upfront is news to us," said Arnie Semsky, BBDO Worldwide exec VP-worldwide media director.

Mr. Semsky did acknowledge that some advertisers are making long-term commitments for international media buys that offer exclusivity. He said international demand is mainly for North Atlantic deals that cover the U.S., Europe and Canada.

Chris Dickens, Young & Rubicam worldwide media director, said while one-time-only events, such as the Olympics or ESPN's sports events packages, do command an upfront presence, but few clients want to participate. He said, "You've got to be a Budweiser or a Coke or an AT&T."

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