Scatter market implodes

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After busting their budgets in a red-hot $9 billion TV upfront, advertisers are staying away from scatter, the sector of the TV market that is flat due to excess inventory and lackluster fall ratings.

"It's definitely pacing behind last year," said Shari Cohen, senior partner-managing director of WPP Group's MindShare Worldwide. "There's been this major disconnect between the slumping general economy and the booming media economy for several years, and it is very ironic now that there is very positive news on the general economic front, with the stock market at its highest levels, that the media economy is in question."

Inventory holds secured during the upfront are going to order at a snail's pace. Marketers are releasing budgets closer to when their flights actually start, said buyers, who indicated that inventory held back in May did not go to order until the bitter end of August.

"We are all collectively misbehaving on the option front," said one top media buyer. "Right now, clients' business decisions dictate that they are not going to make a decision until they absolutely have to. Everything basically is being delayed. We've fallen into a pattern of not adhering to deadlines."

Network sales executives are openly admitting what Mel Karmazin, Viacom's president-chief operating officer, dared to say at the Goldman Sachs media investors conference earlier this month: Ratings guarantees are being made by networks for scatter in order to attract buyers.

"The guarantees are reflective of a weakening marketplace, which also reflects a lower pricing level," said a media buyer who requested anonymity.

"In a bull market, they will forgo guarantees," said Bob Riordan, senior VP-managing director of national broadcast for Havas' Media Planning Group, New York, "but everything is negotiable in this marketplace."

One top network sales executive who requested anonymity admitted that the market was soft, and that guarantees were being brokered as an incentive, but "not across the board; every deal is different." This executive also predicted that sales will improve in the first quarter once audiences and advertisers settle into the new prime-time shows and see the new mid-season programming. "It will not be a dramatic improvement ... but it will get better," the executive said.

few new hits

According to analysis of Nielsen Media Research data by independent Horizon Media, New York, this year's prime time is down 5.4% in the highly coveted 18 to 49-year-old demographic across six broadcast networks, from a 20.4 rating last year to 19.3 this year.

"There is very little in the way of new hits," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research at Horizon. "And the few that are out there are doing well just because of where they are in the schedule," such as NBC's "Coupling," which may not be appearing in November sweeps, and is the third-highest rated show of the season mostly because it follows "Friends." An NBC spokeswoman had no comment.

Media buyers expect significant make-goods for programs that did not perform up to expectations. "An artificial inflationary mechanism will be triggered," said another media buyer, "because the networks will have to pay more back to advertisers sooner, in term of audience deficiency units, unless there is a considerable reversal of their audience fortunes."

Will advertisers be gun shy next year, and not rush into the prime-time upfront market the way they did this year, spending a record $9 billion?

"No," Ms. Cohen said. "We are still very early into the season and this does not an entire season make."

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