None of the key players are looking to ax the upfront completely -- too much forward-planning depends on this booking period. But major media agencies and many marketers are tired of an upfront that plays more to analysts, TV critics and affiliate executives than it does to them, the people who commit $9 billion of their ad budgets during the process.
Ad business needs
That's why the American Association of Advertising Agencies' TV committee and the networks have opened talks about changing the upfront presentations fit the needs of the modern-day ad business rather than the marketing needs of the networks.
"The upfronts have morphed into something that benefits the press and Wall Street, and we have gotten lost in the shuffle," said Andy Donchin, who is spearheading the talks as committee chairman and is also Carat's national broadcast director. "We're looking at how we can somehow ... do them all on one day. We think [the networks] would be somewhat open to doing something more along the lines of NATPE that would concentrate more on prime time."
As it stands right now, the networks' upfront presentations are all-day affairs that involve fighting for tickets and seats, watching parades of famous and not-so-famous actors, and then some singing and dancing, often by network executives. That's all before the after-party.
"It's very difficult to take that time off," said Kaki Hinton, VP-ad services, Pfizer's Consumer Healthcare Group (which was just acquired by Johnson & Johnson). "I haven't been for three years. I used to go, and it was fun to see Jay Leno, but then it got tiresome. What's been more productive is meeting one on one. That's given us an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue."
Media agencies want to see something that allows them to get a handle on prime-time programming strategy and are suggesting they'd like an alternative to the crowded schlep around New York theater venues.
A week of time
"We don't need another shrimp cocktail," said Charlie Rutman, CEO of MPG North America, who also wants to see a retooled upfront. Mr. Rutman added that each upfront event can take five hours, meaning buyers have to turn over an entire week to nothing but presentations.
Mr. Donchin has had preliminary talks with network sales executives about how the upfront can get back to its original raison d'etre but wants to ensure that agencies and their clients are speaking with one voice before pushing the case further with the networks -- and the cable entities and Hispanic networks that now host glitzy, celeb-studded presentations followed by boozy parties. This year newcomers including News Corp.'s My Network TV and Hispanic networks Univision and Telemundo edge into the upfront week, which kicks off May 14.
Mr. Donchin has the blessing of the 4A's TV and policy committees, though the Association of National Advertisers has not given its opinion.
'Less costly and time-consuming'
Mr. Rutman and Mr. Donchin argue that scaling back the upfront presentations could be in the interests of broadcast networks, too. "They are very expensive for the salespeople and take a lot of time to produce," Mr. Rutman said. "There is certain information that we want; let's see if we can get this in a way that's more productive and less costly and time-consuming."
The upfront presentations are run by the networks' entertainment presidents with input from the sales and marketing divisions. With the CBS network now at the heart of the publicly traded CBS Corp. and NBC Universal looking for $700 million in cost savings, a change might be music to the networks' ears. The upfront, attended by more than 1,000 people, can have production costs of up to $1 million, not including the after-parties. Then there's the issue of long-term contracts the networks sign to reserve locations and strict theater-union rules that govern filming of the events.
An NBC spokesman said it solicited feedback after last year's upfront and found comments valuable. An ABC spokeswoman said it had its first upfront-planning session last week and was always willing to hear from its advertisers. CBS had no comment.
Fox could be open to change too. The network switched its venue from the New York City Center to the Armory to accommodate the growing number of attendees. That decision proved disastrous, with the humidity, security arrangements and long lines infuriating participants. Fox did not return calls for comment.