Upfront TV Advertising Summit: Economy improves, but health of TV ads uncertain

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Uncertainty was the shaky word from media executives on the eve of this year's TV upfront advertising market, the annual sell-a-thon where marketers buy a season's worth of commercial time.

At the second annual Electronic Media/Advertising Age Upfront Television Advertising Summit last week in New York, executives noted while market conditions have improved, not all is well with TV advertising.

"The economy is healthier but there is a lot of uncertainty," said Mel Berning, president of U.S broadcast, Bcom3 Group MediaVest Worldwide, New York, on a panel of network executives. "Unemployment is up and corporate profits look horrible."

Some categories will indeed slow down-particularly pharmaceuticals. The $2 billion-plus direct-to-consumer drug category, which posted double-digit increases over the last several years, slowed to just 7% growth in 2001, said Donna Campanella, director-team leader, Pfizer.

One point on which media executives agreed is that the marketplace will not return to the days when broadcast network upfront selling was completed in four days.

Media-buying executives also expressed concerns about network program development. "The broadcast networks took the easy way out with news shows and more recently reality and game shows," said Donna Speciale, exec VP-national and local broadcast, Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York. "But this is not sticking. There has not been a hit in a year and a half. [Networks] are going backwards. Airing Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett [specials] is pretty sad."

Executives were most uncertain about the syndication business-last year program suppliers cut budgets by some 30%. One executive on the summit's syndication panel, Fred Dubin, exec VP-director of national broadcast, Mediaedge:CIA, questioned: "Is syndication a stepsister in these megamedia companies?"

Not surprisingly, syndication-sales-side executives disagreed.

"Syndication is playing an increased role in cross-media deals," said Michael Teicher, exec VP-media sales, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution.

Good news for cable networks could come as a result of increased network pricing. "The danger is on the broadcast network side-they charge twice the [cost per thousand] of what cable network charges," said Dan Rank, managing director of broadcast, OMD USA, New York.

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