Are you ready to rumble? For the sales chiefs at the major networks, it's game time. As they aim to dazzle, delight and schmooze the ad community this week, all eyes will be on the negotiating frontlines. Here's a look at the important players to watch at this year's upfront, as well as their strengths and challenges.
Joann Ross, President--sales, CBS Television Network
Is this the year CBS sets the tone of the market before Fox makes a volume play? Ms. Ross is saddled every year with the outsize expectations of CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who inevitably calls for massive price hikes before the upfront gets under way. Meanwhile, Fox often grabs cash by agreeing to take a cut on pricing in exchange for more money in the till. Ms. Ross arguably has the tightest prime-time lineup, including "The Big Bang Theory," which has approached "Idol" in its ability to lure the 18-to-49 audience.
Toby Byrne, President--sales, Fox Broadcasting Co.
Mr. Byrne fared well while supervising his first upfront in 2011, but he has new challenges this year, including a prime-time schedule lacking "House." He must pitch a second season of "X Factor," which will carry lower expectations than it did last year, and keep advertisers hooked on an aging "American Idol." Fox's appeal to young men gives him strong ties to movie studios and tech firms.
Geri Wang, President--sales and marketing, ABC
Thanks to "The Voice," the Peacock Network has been breathing down ABC's neck in terms of ratings , and this year Ms. Wang must make do without "Desperate Housewives." Still, she will be armed with new seasons of "Modern Family" and "Revenge," as well as new ad packages that include on-demand viewers who watch shows with an iPad or online player.
Marianne Gambelli, President--ad sales, NBC
Ad buyers have high praise for Ms. Gambelli, who in recent years has tried to maintain pricing even as her network has stumbled. NBC remains in a tough spot—NFL football and "The Voice" are its only true bright spots— but Ms. Gambelli's willingness to work with sponsors has fostered a good attitude at the haggling table. Whether that will be enough to generate more volume for the network remains to be seen.
Linda Yaccarino, President--cable entertainment and digital ad sales, NBC Universal
This upfront finds the colorful and aggressive Ms. Yaccarino in a new role. Once a top player at Time Warner 's Turner, she now leads the ad-sales efforts for the healthier assets at NBC Universal. Ms. Yaccarino is said to be under a fair degree of pressure from owner Comcast, which is depending on cable to drive returns for the money it has invested in big sports-programming initiatives and to bolster lackluster programming at NBC.
Oprah Winfrey, CEO, Oprah Winfrey Network
High expectations and soft ratings have turned what should have been the quiet launch of a niche cable network, OWN, into a kerfuffle for co-owner Discovery Communications and Ms. Winfrey. Will advertisers lend a hand as she works to climb what she has described as her "Mount Kilimanjaro," or will they scale back?
Donna Speciale, President--ad sales TNT, TBS, TruTV and Cartoon Network;
David Levy, President--sales, distribution and sports, Turner Broadcasting
All eyes will be on Ms. Speciale, who has moved to the sales side after years at MediaVest as the top negotiator for Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble. Look for Mr. Levy to keep close watch as Turner works to dispel questions about ratings at TNT and continues to pitch Conan O'Brien's late-night show at TBS. Ms. Speciale will have to make an effort to keep the sales mentality top-of -mind.