Facing a Decline, Networks Cater to Marketers' Needs

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Maybe the upfront isn't dying. Perhaps it's simply fading away.

Last year around this time -- when yet another upfront market came in showing growth -- we wondered if perhaps marketers were simply stupid. After all, when it came to broadcast TV, weren't marketers paying more and getting less?

Still, we figured that in a world of DVRs, changing metrics and declining ratings, the days of year-over-year network growth were numbered. This year, it seems, a struggling economy, the hangover from the writers strike and a looming actors revolt is going to finish -- or hasten -- what all the new technology started.

For years, marketers and media agencies have been crying for the networks to change how they do business. But, as we wrote last year, networks have been hooked on their own product. Sure, they've made stumbling attempts at including web and other digital offerings in their deals. Old habits, though, die hard -- especially since the networks were able to get away with charging more to compensate for their declining ratings. And there's no way around the fact that digital offerings still can't offer scale.

But many marketers are really feeling the pinch this year and, more important, they seem to really, really mean it when they say they're cutting back on their broadcast spending this time around. How big those cutbacks are remains to be seen, but with all signs pointing to a down market, the networks seem to have gotten the message. They're trying to focus on marketers' needs, pledging to do anything they can.

That's good for marketers; they want more freedom to put down money as they wish, not across networks or schedules but on specific programs and entertainment properties that help promote specific marketing initiatives. What we are witnessing is a slow "unbundling" of the upfront. Networks are trying to show they are more nimble and have to remake themselves to do so.

That doesn't mean the market will go away completely. After all, no one wants to pay higher scatter prices, which for years have exceeded upfront prices. So that leaves most marketers still booking as much time as they can in the upfront.

As long as broadcast continues to be the place that offers reach and scale, there will be an upfront market. But the way the market plays out has changed for good.
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