The Biz - Reality check: 5% rise seen in upfront

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With war concerns abating, the strong TV advertising market looks to continue as media executives expect a moderately healthy upfront market. Overall, the upfront is expected to see at least a 5% rise to $8.55 billion in overall revenue from the $8.1 billion prime- time upfront market last year, according to an informal survey of media buyers. More optimistic media sellers predict a bigger gain to $9 billion. Some time ago, Mel Karmazin, president-chief operating officer of Viacom, said the upfront could rise 15%-putting the market at more than $9 billion.

One new wrinkle in this year's upfront is a stable supply of key adults 18-49 gross ratings points-down 0.5% vs. a year ago. In the past decade, prime-time network ratings eroded at a 4% to 5% rate per year as viewers turned to cable and other outlets.

The outlook is even better when comparing similar programming last season and this season. Taking out NBC's Salt Lake City Olympics broadcasts in February 2002, which boosted 18-49 viewership, the results come out even year-to-year. Collectively, the seven broadcast networks pulled in a Nielsen Media Research 53 share through April 7, the same as a season ago. In the 2000-2001 season, the seven networks share was 56.

New reality shows are the reason for the slowdown in erosion. Shows like CBS' "Survivor," Fox's "American Idol" and ABC's "The Bachelor" spiked ratings for their respective networks. Even second-tier-rated reality shows are helping, such as CBS' "Amazing Race" and NBC's "Fear Factor."

"Reality shows have a lot to do with it, " says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of audience research at Horizon Media, New York. "It fits that demographic [adults 18-49] profile. That's part of the appeal of it."

Still, media-agency executives say these stable 18-49 numbers need to be examined more closely. "There is some underlying erosion with dramas and comedies, probably about 4% to 5% per year," says Rino Scanzoni, president-national broadcast for WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York.

For years, marketers and media executives have bemoaned network-audience erosion. Network executives feel they've found a way to stem losses, but say ad executives still aren't happy.

That's because ad executives feel reality shows aren't of the same quality as scripted dramas or comedies. "We are all looking for more ratings points," says Mel Berning, president-national broadcast for Publicis Groupe's MediaVest Worldwide, New York. "I'd be lying in saying these are saleable ratings points." For example, some of the edgier shows, such as ABC's "Are You Hot?" or NBC's "Fear Factor," deliver the 18-49 year old viewers, but certain advertisers shy away from their risque content. But Jon Nesvig, president-advertising sales for the Fox Broadcasting Co., said not all reality shows should be lumped together.

plethora of reality

Agency executives are happy that much of the early program development by the networks for next year had a full complement of scripted series. But many don't believe all will make it if they deliver tepid ratings. The networks have planned a plethora of reality shows just in case.

"If you see what is going on this summer, there is going to be a ton of reality shows," Horizon Media's Adgate says. "I'll bet you these entertainment shows, if they don't meet expectations, will be replaced by these reality shows by the November sweeps."

Media-agency executives say there's no guarantee of a strong upfront, even though current near-term second-quarter deals have seen prices rise 40% or higher compared with last year.

"A lot of growth is already built in," MediaVest's Berning says. "Next year's growth? Prime time? A couple of points increase at best."

Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media, New York, agrees. He doesn't expect increases to come from automotive, pharmaceutical, retail or fast food, though entertainment, especially movies and home video, will likely increase.

"We have been saying all along, we don't see a $9 billion market," he said. "We don't see a large incremental spend."

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