Upfront market off to slow start

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With the network upfront programming presentations concluded and the $8.2 billion upfront market slow to develop, cross-media deal sellers could get the time they need to ink major deals.

AOL Time Warner, Viacom Plus, ABC Unlimited and NBC Connect are all in the hunt to complete upfront deals that would span across a number of broadcast, cable and syndication properties. Companies such as Procter & Gamble Co., General Motors Corp., Burger King Corp. and McDonalds Corp. are all cited as discussing deals with cross-media sales operations, according to media executives.

These divisions may have time to ink deals, because of predictions the upfront market will run as late as mid-June or July-unlike last year, when the entire market was sold and bought by the third week in May. "It certainly appears the market doesn't have the urgency of the last couple of years," said Mike Mandelker, exec VP-network sales for Viacom's UPN.

Ad agency media executives are claiming network costs-per-thousand viewers could see flat to slight decreases from last year. Network salespeople counter that the networks could see flat to single-digit price increases. Overall, upfront dollars might drop from $8.2 billion last year to between $7.2 billion and $7.4 billion for next season.

Veridiem, a Maynard, Mass., marketing performance firm, said of 318 agency and media executives it surveyed, 50% said they'll decrease TV budgets this year; 39% said their budgets would be the same; only 11% said their budgets would climb.

UPN, for one, will certainly do a lot better this year, because it's acquired "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," an AOL Time Warner's WB show, and another WB castoff, "Roswell." This could add some $75 million in ad sales to UPN's Tuesday nights, media executives said. That would lift its total to some $225 million from $150 million last year.

Viacom's CBS is pinning big hopes on "The Education of Max Bickford" starring Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden. The show airs Sundays at 8 p.m., and portrays its stars as college professors looking to get ahead. Ad agency execs placed it as a possible winner. CBS is focusing on lowering the age of its viewers, dumping shows like "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Diagnosis Murder," and substituting younger-skewing dramas.

General Electric's NBC will try to keep its adults 18 to 49 lead in the sweep periods, but it won't be easy. "Emeril," with omnipresent chef Emeril Lagasse, is NBC's new 8 p.m. sitcom on Tuesdays. But few ad agency executives see a winner. "Emeril will be this year's Michael Richards," said Sharianne Brill, VP-director of programming services for Carat USA, referring to NBC's failed comedy last year starring the ex-"Seinfeld" actor. Ms. Brill also isn't pro "Inside Schwartz," about a would-be sportscaster whose relationship problems are fantasized in live-action sports metaphors.

Walt Disney Co.'s ABC is trimming "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to two nights from four. One of its biggest efforts is "Bob Patterson," a sitcom starring Jason Alexander as a motivational speaker. It plays at 9 p.m on Tuesday, against tough competition in NBC's "Frazier." ABC will try to boost its Sunday 9 p.m. slot with "Alias," another in a series of CIA-themed shows this season. But agency executives are concerned that its violence could keep advertisers away.

News Corp.'s Fox takes aim at NBC on Thursdays by scheduling its high-rated steamy reality-show "Temptation Island" at 9 p.m. Fox sold the show to advertisers such as movie companies, but many big time mainstream consumer products firms stayed away.

The best CPM increases could go to AOL Time Warner's The WB, due to its valuable core audience, women 12 to 34. The WB will try to revamp its Tuesday night, filling "Buffy's" time slot with "Gilmore Girls," leading into "Smallville," an hour drama about the early days of Clark Kent (aka Superman). The WB is experimenting away from its young-women drama base, with more comedies, especially Friday and Saturday nights.

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