TV Revamp: Upfront buyers eye fall start, closing bell

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Fed up with the timing and frantic pace of the annual TV upfront, senior executives from at least four major media agencies are weighing a plan to revamp the process.

The proposal includes moving the selling period from May to August, or even September, and agreeing on a "closing bell" that would end nightly negotiations at a particular hour.

Agency buyers believe that by moving the sales period closer to the start of the season, the process will be less about buying a commodity just to get gross rating points. Buying later, they believe, will provide a better sense of network schedules and content than the present system.

David Verklin, CEO, Carat North America, and an outspoken critic of the upfront, is leading the charge. "I've talked informally to Irwin [Gotlieb, MindShare's CEO], I've talked to Jon Mandel [ MediaCom's co-CEO and chief negotiating officer] about it, I've talked to Steve Grubbs [ PHD North America's CEO] about it," said Mr. Verklin, adding that he plans to approach other buyers.

"That we transact $1.5 billion worth of TV time at 3 o'clock in the morning over cold pizza is ridiculous, and I don't think there's a rationale for it," said Mr. Verklin. "I can't look my clients in the eye and tell them that's a good American business practice."

There is some concern among buyers that they could put themselves into a situation where they could be accused of collusion and antitrust law violations.

early deals

"I think there would be restraint of trade issues," said Jon Nesvig, president of advertising sales for Fox Broadcasting Co. "It would handcuff the agencies and the clients. Then somebody can't do an early deal if they want to?"

Moving the upfront wouldn't work because someone will always have an incentive to do an early deal, said Bill Cella, chairman, Magna Global, who nonetheless called reform necessary and the current effort "admirable."

But an antitrust lawyer at a major law firm doesn't believe the joint approach will run afoul of the feds. "It's probably not a problem," said the attorney. "If they were agreeing, for example, that none of them would pay more than $100,000 a minute, that would be a very serious problem."

not the answer

Mr. Verklin believes buyers have a good chance to limit late-night dealmaking. "Seven of us control 70% of the market," he said. "The seven of us are going to agree that we should have a closing bell. And ... I think we can get the sellers to enforce it."

Any plan without Magna and OMD is probably doomed to fail, senior executives said. "That's 30% of the spending," said Mr. Cella.

"The answer is not an extra week to buy," said Mike Drexler, CEO, Optimedia International. "The problem is much bigger than that. The way the upfront occurs now clearly gives the advantage to the seller."

His solution: Do away with the fall season start entirely and buy time throughout the year in accordance with the actual needs of clients.

Sellers at ABC, CBS and NBC did not respond to calls for comment.

Mr. Chunovic is a reporter at TelevisionWeek

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