Wait Till May, and You May Miss Much of the Upfront

Broadcast TV Networks Including NBC in Talks With Advertisers Already

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- TIn case you haven't noticed, your upfront season has already started.

While NBC was unveiling its plan to jump-start talks with marketers by setting its final programming schedule in April, Peter Liguori, the chairman of entertainment at News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting, was preparing to leave for New York to chat up buyers and clients. The goal: to give them a heads-up about next year's schedule.
Peter Liguori, chairman of entertainment at News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting
Peter Liguori, chairman of entertainment at News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting

NBC wouldn't give much detail when Ad Age reported the other broadcast networks' plans for their upfront presentations, preferring a heavily publicized "reveal" Feb. 19. In its announcement, NBC said it would make its 52-week programming schedule available to advertisers in April, in order to be able to have more-detailed conversations with individual clients about buying ads around and within its shows. It will use its May event, which it called a "spotlight" rather than "upfront presentation," to highlight all of NBC Universal's ad venues -- not just its broadcast network.

NBC's move and Mr. Liguori's meetings are proof positive that the wrangling between advertisers and broadcast networks over new shows has started earlier and earlier over the last few years -- well before May, when networks put on their show-biz laden presentations to woo more than $9 billion in prime-time ad dollars.

Year-round process
NBC Universal's decision to unveil start talking to advertisers about its schedule earlier than May crystallizes a movement in the broadcast-TV business that has been building for the past several years: The networks launch new shows in every calendar season, and the need for a single May presentation to talk about the fall season is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Earlier talks this year can only help the broadcast networks, who likely are going to have fewer new fall programs to tout due to the recently ended writers strike holding up production schedules and pilot development. The big TV outlets have other problems, too: their prime-time ratings continue to erode and penetration of ad-skipping digital video recorders continues to increase.

That's led to a growing sense among major advertisers that TV commercials don't work as well as they once did. A survey of 78 leading marketers conducted by the Association of National Advertisers and Forrester Research found 62% of marketers believe traditional TV ads have become less effective during the last two years. More than 50% reported that when half of all TV households use DVRs, they will cut spending on TV advertising 12%.

NBC believes its move will allow marketers to get a sense of "how we can better deliver ad solutions" earlier than usual and NBC "can get their input on our programs and our programming ideas," said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. The upfront system has largely encouraged networks to "talk at advertisers," he added, and now should evolve into "more of a hand-in-hand approach."

NBC's maneuver follows the arrival last year of Ben Silverman as Mr. Graboff's partner in running the Peacock network's entertainment operations. Mr. Silverman is known for trying to bring advertisers in early during the program-development process, as seen by the inclusion of a Ford Mustang in a new version of "Knight Rider." He has also expressed a disdain for ordering up pilots when so many new shows fail, preferring instead to package tested concepts that marketers will find familiar.

Growing concensus
He and NBC aren't the only ones who have figured out that the best time to consider a complex ad deal isn't in May. The CW and Publicis Groupe's MediaVest ad-buying firm helped devise the idea for the network's "content wraps" -- miniature, advertiser-sponsored programs that run during commercial breaks -- in the early months of 2006, and the network unveiled the concept at its upfront meeting that year, ready to sell it.

"Every network has moved in that direction, where they realize it's a 52-week-a-year proposition rather than just a September through May proposition. They realize you can't unveil everything in the fall and expect everything to work," said Andy Donchin, who oversees broadcast buying at Carat.

He expects most networks to ask for a grace period this fall; because of the recently ended writers strike, few of them have been able to fill their pipelines with new programming. As such, look for lots of this season's shows -- even middling performers -- to return in September, while networks gear up to roll out newer stuff in the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. "The amount of new stuff we saw in the first half of the season [last year] will not happen, and it will be spread across the year," said Mr. Donchin.

For Fox, the fall largely will contain familiar programming and new programs will make their debuts later in 2008 and into 2009.

"Our needs are minimal in the fall and we will have product to show that we hope to get on throughout the year," said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive VP- strategic programs planning and research.
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