TV Upfront

Upfront, I Love You! (Now Change)

Viewpoint: First Let's Admit There's Something Good About This Process

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Episode One

I love the TV upfront. There, I said it. It feels liberating to admit.

This is not a very popular position to take regarding one of our industry's most maligned traditions.

Every year around this time, CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves plays fortune-teller: "I see double digits in your future, and 13 is now your lucky number." Later there's the traditional "Count the House Tango," a clumsy dance in which sales executives try to get the buyers to lead by asking them to disclose how much their clients' budgets have changed from the previous year. In between you can hear the hue and cry over the injustice of the big, bad upfront.

The upfront is ridiculed, in both good times and bad, for being anachronistic and exclusionary, for placing transactional expediency above adaptation to constantly emerging technologies and media consumption trends.

I will defend the highly resilient upfront, though, and not just for the obvious reasons, like the chance to hear another network programming executive say, "This is the project that we've been begging so-and-so for years to star in," or "We can now sell you a full 540 degrees of marketing around this show." (The broadcast networks and a few major cable channels will make their big presentations to ad buyers next week, and they will definitely say a few things like that .)

I actually believe the upfront remains a highly effective forum for TV's biggest customers to achieve long-term competitive advantages, not to mention stability with manageable flexibility, based on a year's worth of strategies, analyses, research, planning and, yes, even negotiations.

One key knock against the upfront is that the concentrated negotiating window of the marketplace is not conducive to higher-level thinking and deeper collaboration. But that fails to acknowledge the months and months of planning and discussions (and yes, discussions are really part of the negotiation process) leading up to that final round of deal-making in the spring and summer.

Just as you would not limit the definition of "shopping" to your time actually standing at the cash register, good media agencies are "trying on" media clothing for their clients all year long, chatting with eager salespeople in an effort to find the right purchases at an affordable price. (I can hear it now: "Will this sponsorship make my client's ROI look fat?" "Do you have something with similar ratings , but within my budget?" "Are you kidding me? Do I look like I'm made of money? Get me your manager!")

Sure, when it comes down to the price negotiations (and often, that 's about all that 's left to settle by the time of the upfront itself), the pace is fast and furious, but I wouldn't have that part any other way.

After all, where would we be without our upfront war stories? What client wants to hear that you calmly and civilly came to agreement on media inflation with a particular vendor at 2:30 in the afternoon after a leisurely sushi lunch, when you could have battled for that same resolution at 4 in the morning after having stayed awake for 72 hours, in a violent fit of pique that could be accurately visualized only by Quentin Tarantino? Here's some simple media math: Sleep deprivation = pity = a slightly less aggravated client.

Even as buyers complain, however, many media companies have recently been rethinking their upfront bashing.

Like the nerdy kids in high school who can't stand the popular kids and express their antipathy through resentment ("Those network kids think they're so cool with their fancy dayparts and firm budgets"), mockery ("Dude, no matter how loaded your parent company is , do you think you are going to graduate with those ratings ?") and envy ("I wish the agencies would text me for flight dates instead of those mature networks"), the rest of the media industry now has an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality.

In a boon to the ballroom-rental and shrimp-cocktail businesses in NYC, virtually every media company now wants to chase the upfront money. (The rules to this game are simple. No matter what media content and platform you represent, you have to convince the other players that it is just like TV. The winner has money thrown at it by the other players and then tenders an IPO).

But does simply willing it to happen make it so? If it did, I would be getting ready for my next start on the mound at Yankee Stadium instead of sitting at my desk typing. And if the upfront is going to outlast its detractors, does it require significant reinvention, given the breathtaking transformation and expansion of the media universe?

Answers to these questions and more in Episode Two of Upfront, I Love You! (Now Change). Find some necessary steps forwards in our conclusion, Episode Three.

Mike Rosen is president and chief activation officer at Starcom USA. Follow @Starcom_USA for his reactions to the networks' upfront pitches next week.

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