TV's annual roulette game

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I've worked on the TV upfront at Advertising Age since before we knew enough to call these days in spring/summer the TV upfront season. I remember how we would chuckle with glee after a reporter would find out the first fall prime-time buy that Gardner Advertising's Advanswers media executive Paul Schulman would make for client Ralston Purina Co.

His buy would resonate like a starter's gun. We knew instinctively in the late '70s that from that point the ensuing few weeks would provide plenty of news for the Ad Age readers as Procter & Gamble Co., General Motors Corp. and lesser marketers would be snapping up fall commercial time on ABC, CBS and NBC. Buys then might be entered by ball-point pen into a type of accountant's ledger, and I had no idea at the time what an optimizer was, or a split-30, or a DTC commercial. A power play at the time would entail a roadblock buy of all three networks to run a prime-time commercial concurrently. Without a national cable TV presence, half the homes using television in America would be covered in such a ploy.

The TV upfront season has gotten more complicated in years hence. I've heard networks posturing about how their product reaches the masses more efficiently than any other media while prime-time ratings continue to slide. I've seen the emergence of cable as a phenomenon that delivers a passionate demographic; and I marvel at interactive TV, TiVo and my digital remote control that puts the most powerful ad-supported medium at my fingertips.

As one who has seen the evolution of the TV upfront, I assure there has never been one like this year's. You know the details-competitive pressures, a tight economy and strike threats make the art of the TV deal in 2001 the most interesting yet. To the naysayers who expect agencies and advertisers to stay away, I say, "Not so fast." This is a genie in a bottle that hit $8 billion last year, and that makes the stakes too high to risk being shut out.

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