Swimming Upstream In The River Of Reality

Brands eye raft of new shows for summer

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%%STORYIMAGE_LEFT%%With the third quarter of 2003 already sold out and Viacom Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin predicting a 15% rise in upfront prices for the fall network TV schedules, advertisers are under greater pressure to work with producers further "upstream" to maximize this summer's reality bonanza.

According to Mark Stroman, an Endeavor senior marketing executive, deals on this year's crop of broadcast-network reality shows were already being hammered down a good six months in advance of airing. "Right after the Super Bowl, the TV development season was at its highest. There were Madison Avenue executives all over Hollywood.

"Advertisers are raising their heads higher and screaming louder. It's a crowded dance floor and advertisers are saying, 'I want to play ball,'" said Stroman, who called this year's round of negotiations between talent agencies, ad agencies, media buyers and network ad sales departments "precedent-setting."

What has so altered is the extent to which the year-round demand for reality TV has allowed advertisers to become an accepted part of the production finance model. Stroman says ad executives are there from the initial concept, pitch meetings, pilots and all points beyond.

According to Guy McCarter, senior VP-director of OMD Entertainment, the peacock network may be well-poised to reap the most benefit from the new slate of shows. The concepts generating the strongest advance buzz include four from NBC: "The Fast and the Furious," "The Next Action Star," "The Restaurant" (a behind-the-scenes look at a Manhattan restaurant startup), and "Around The World in 80 Dates," which has signed on dating service Yahoo! Personals as a partner.

The networks are set to release around 24 reality shows between June and September, with NBC being the biggest backer of the genre in terms of commitments. Advertisers are said to be spending anywhere between $3 million to $4 million on the strongest of the untested shows and up to a $1 million on the weaker concepts.

Dave Bartis, CEO of Hypnotic, the Los Angeles TV/film production outfit, said that the year-round demand for fresh reality has resulted in a redundant upfront season. "I think the upfronts are a big schmooze fest," he said. "The shows have all been pre-sold; it's a little like NATPE. Every advertiser has already seen every show."

Deborah Wahl Meyer, Toyota corporate manager of marketing communications, is discussing deals on reality shows with NBC and says the upfronts are a "disaster," given that companies are being asked to buy timeslots without knowing which shows they're getting because of the rapid rescheduling going on.

The auto manufacturer backed ABC's "Push, Nevada," a scripted show from Live Planet last year that was ultimately cancelled, though Toyota was prepared to take the risk. "The basic fundamental model has to change," Wahl Meyer said. "The new model has to include all three; producer, advertiser and network."

Bartis is a key player in bringing writers to brands and preparing them for advertiser-friendly pitch meetings. "The model will shift a bit," he said. "License fees for networks are going down. That's one of the pictures, or you accept a sponsor who commits to premium spot buys. The other way for a production company to go is to buy out the time period and sell it back to itself."

"Producers do come with people attached and we're not going to do that," said Amy Baker, VP-Discovery Solutions. Baker is responsible for integrated deals across all of Discovery's channels. "We have our own ad sales team. People can and do bring interested parties and if the program is right we'll look into it, but it is not normal."%%PULLQUOTE_RIGHT%%

Baker said that the majority of the content on Discovery's various channels is owned by the company, a fact that allows for more flexibility in terms of product integration. Lowe sponsored Discovery's TLC hit "Trading Spaces" from the start, as did Home Depot with another TLC home-decorating series, "While You Were Out." Said Baker: "Advertisers are much more inclined to get in early. They want to enjoy the growth of the show. It's not about getting a better deal, it's being part of the buzz."

OMD's McCarter says that with the networks' third quarter 2003 already sold out, there's not a lot of advertising time to buy. He wonders whether the tight ad market might lead to greater leniency about integration.

"I think there's definitely more communication between the producer world and the ad world than there has been." Though McCarter has had many positive dealings with the networks—client Cingular is sponsoring vocal-talent contest "All-American Girl," which makes its debut on ABC on March 12—he says the shifting model won't work unless the networks are fully onboard and whether they ever will be is a sixty-four-million-dollar question.

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