Upfront's Fuzzy Math

What Everyone Is Talking About

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The upfront is the ultimate game show, and reporting on it is a little bit like being a contestant. At the start, all the participants -- broadcast networks and media agencies alike -- try to decide if it's a billion dollars in the suitcase or just $1 and then as budgets get registered, a picture begins to emerge and cost-per-thousand rates rise to the surface. Then one half of the audience shouts "Higher!" and the other half shouts "Lower!" and some kind of consensus emerges.
Getting to the final tally of this year's upfront is anything but clear cut.
Getting to the final tally of this year's upfront is anything but clear cut.

As CBS CEO Leslie Moonves observed, "It's a very interesting PR thing that goes on when advertisers always say down CPMs and we always say way up and the truth is somewhere in the middle."

Nets have the numbers
With multiple sources, it's possible to get pretty close to an accurate picture of how the upfront is playing out, until, that is, you reach the end of play and we come to the final numbers and we call the upfront market up or down. The only people who have those numbers are the networks. Some years when the market is buoyant, the press is briefed by the president of sales and we even get a press release with a number -- thank you, ABC. Other years, this one in particular, barely anyone one comes to the phone and a final number is floated by "insiders."

While Advertising Age is sticking with its own reporting, we got to wondering why all of us upfront watchers seem to be arriving at slightly different figures for each of the networks. Are we briefed by different insiders? Are networks booking additional dollars between briefings with reporters? Is somebody obfuscating? Why won't the networks consistently go on the record with their final figures to avoid the confusion?

The one consistent figure that's been reported so far is Fox's $1.8 billion. That's what Ad Age reported, as did The New York Times, TV Week, Variety, Broadcasting & Cable, Mediaweek, and MediaPost. The Wall Street Journal gave Fox a range, saying it took in between $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion. According to Ad Age, Fox bagged $1.55 billion last year.

Figuring out the CW
Newbie network the CW, created by merging the WB and UPN, has been particularly hard to figure. Ad Age pegged CW's take this year at $650 million, as did The New York Times, Mediaweek and MediaPost. Variety said it was just shy of $650 million. Broadcasting & Cable said it took in $625 million to $650 million, while The Wall Street Journal reported $625 million to $640 million. According to insiders, CW did better than the WB's performance last year, but there seems to be some debate about what last year was and insiders won't say what this year is -- only that it's up. Are you still with us? For the record Advertising Age reported last year that WB bagged $675 million and UPN $375,000.

CBS, while technically not completely done selling, is getting closer to its final number. Here at Ad Age, we estimated it will close upfront dealing at $2.4 billion, as did The New York Times and Variety. Mediaweek estimates it will come in between $2.3 billion to $2.4 billion; The Journal said $2 billion to $2.4 billion; Broadcasting & Cable has $2.2 billion; and MediaPost says $2.3 billion. What CBS did last year now seems open for debate. Advertising Age wrote this time last year that it took $2.5 billion, but insiders now say it was more like $2.4 billion.

We're still waiting for an official number from ABC, but estimates are that the Walt Disney Co. network will take anywhere from $2.05 billion to $2.2 billion.

NBC said it had wrapped up business at $1.9 billion, which is what Ad Age, Mediaweek, TV Week, Broadcasting & Cable, The Journal, The New York Times and MediaPost all reported. The New York Post, meanwhile, has NBC at $1.8 billion to $1.9 billion. That would mean it was pretty much even with last year's take.

Factoring in football
The wrinkle for NBC this year, however, is what to do with the money that was committed to its new Sunday Night Football franchise. Variety pegged the Peacock's take at $1.7 billion, saying it was not counting football money. Here at Ad Age, we pegged NBC's take without football at $1.6 billion, working off the figure of $300 million in commitments for the NFL games -- others say it was closer to $200 million.

Some in the industry argue that without football on Sunday night, NBC would have been selling other programming on that night and it would have been counted. However, despite hard lobbying, ABC's "Monday Night Football" was never included as part of upfront calculations in past years.

Which leads us to the next bugaboo, whether last year's final tally was actually correct. Every year, after this mushy process of trying to get to the final tally is over, there's always one number that emerges as the one the industry more or less agrees to as the base. That was $9.1 billion for last year's upfront -- a number which major media agencies dispute, pegging it nearer to $8.5 billion.

Revising last year
But this year, we've encountered a new way to spin the upfront: revising last year. Some networks are positing that they are not flat or below last year's upfront because ... wait for it ... last year's numbers were wrong. Did networks give us overly optimistic final projections last year? Did advertisers cancel upfront commitments? Another problem: Who's including what? Strictly speaking, the figure is prime-time entertainment but networks sometimes wrap in other odds and ends.

Advertising Age accepts our place in the fuzzy upfront universe. We are told that what we write in many cases sets the market. We are sure we sometimes get steered in the wrong direction: Market rumors run rampant, and it's often tough to decipher who's talking about their own experience vs. what they've heard somebody else did. Sometimes networks will lead us down the right path, other times they don't. To paraphrase one buyer: If you write that CPMs were up 2% then I have to get deals at 1%, so please don't write that. (Of course we report what we hear across the industry.) But that leads us to conclude that maybe media agencies have no vested interest in us pushing the numbers too low.

Even though ABC and CBS are still wrapping up the last pieces of business, the industry agrees on one fact: The upfront will be less than $9.1 billion. And the final number? Somewhere between $8.7 billion and $8.95 billion. If anyone wants to step forward and go on the record with their real take, we're happy to report it. Until then, we're stuck with fuzzy math.
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