Major mergers, DTC issues conspire to slow TV ad sales

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Agencies are already predicting a gloomy start to the 2005 TV ad market, citing a potentially shrunken direct-to-consumer drug business and consolidation under way with mergers of Kmart and Sears, Cingular and AT&T, and Sprint and Nextel.

Those shifts-coupled with growing DVR penetration, a continued shift to cable and the absence of election and Olympic dollars-do not make for a pretty picture. One executive went so far as to suggest the broadcast upfront, still five months away, could be down for the first time since the dot-com bust.

But with the Super Bowl, the Grammys, the Academy Awards and a new NCAA season on the horizon, the broadcast networks aren't admitting to concern, other than to concede that marketers are still frustrating agencies and broadcasters by failing to make definitive long-term plans. Agencies have this month to decide whether to exercise options for the second half of the broadcast season, which includes a host of new series.

"First-quarter options saw 6% to 9% come off the books, so the broadcast networks have a little more to sell," said one agency executive.

Geri Wang, senior VP of prime-time sales at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, said, "More and more clients feel that flexibility is a crucial element in how they're going to spend their money. I have confidence that the first quarter will have a steady stream." ABC launched "Alias" last week and "SuperNanny" and "Blind Justice" are waiting in the wings.

"ABC and CBS have a strong competitive position and are selling more ratings points. That adds some inventory to the market," one senior network executive at another broadcast network said. That's potentially a problem for rival networks if they're struggling to shift inventory. According to most, the scatter market is off to a slow start-though the first quarter is the most pre-sold.

"It's a little slow. It will be comparable to fourth quarter,"said Harry Keeshan, exec VP-national broadcast buying, Omnicom Group's PHD. Donna Speciale, president-U.S. broadcast, MediaVest, part of Publicis Groupe, added: "First quarter is pretty much going to go at the same pace as fourth quarter, meaning it will be on a week-by-week basis."

the late-night money

American Express and General Motors Corp. are among the spenders in the first-quarter market, said agency executives. Added one executive: "The biggest daypart that is open right now is late night. Everyone needs late-night money."

Keith Turner, president-sales and marketing for NBC Universal, said, "First quarter looks OK, [but] it's not all that active." On fourth quarter, he said, "We were pacing slow, but there was a pretty good flurry. We beat our numbers in fourth quarter." (See related story, P. 1)

Fox Network is looking to "American Idol," to boost medical drama "House" on Wednesdays. The network is also programming a third night of "Idol" for three weeks on Mondays, from Feb. 21. "We've had some problems getting series launched in the fourth quarter, but we've addressed that," a senior Fox exective said.

Ratings

Network % change in 18-49 ratings 2004 vs. 2003

ABC +8.3%

CBS +8.1%

NBC -9.8%

Fox -8.1%

WB 0.0%

UPN +7.1%

Source: Horizon Media analysis of Nielsen Media Research data

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