Fox, CBS on top as upfront kicks off

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The broadcast networks face a growing array of competitors, from the mushrooming ranks of cable channels, to powerful Google and Yahoo, to still-small rivals such as video-on-demand and ad-supported wireless-delivered fare. Then toss in the challenge of the time-shifting personal video recorders. These influences could upend the whole broadcast model within the next five to 10 years.

For now, however, as the industry begins to its annual performance reviews, it finds the broadcast networks in healthy form. Viewer erosion is minimal this year, and there are hits at every network.

"This will be the first upfront that we are going in with rating points in our favor, and now we're actually purchasing something and not purchasing less. We're now going to be purchasing more. That's a good thing for everybody," Donna Speciale, president-U.S. broadcast at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest, New York, said at Advertising Age's upfront roundtable.

"They should feel pretty good," says Gene DeWitt, chairman of independent media planning agency DeWitt Media Options, commenting on the broadcast networks. "They've hit on some programming formulas that seem to be working for them."

Those formulas are not just the "CSIs," and "Law & Orders" but series such as "Survivor" and "American Idol" that the viewers have returned to in greater numbers year after year. There's a whole new swath of drama scores, from ABC's "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy," to Fox's "House," to NBC's "Medium" and "Revelations."


Whether these factors will produce additional upfront commitments from marketers remains to be seen. Ad Age's own estimates suggest the dollars headed to the broadcast networks will be flat from last year's $9.1 billion. Merrill Lynch & Co. advertising analyst Lauren Rich Fine also suggests a tepid market, in a report dated April 25, but says the foreign auto, pharmaceutical and entertainment categories might produce up to a 5% gain in this year's upfront market.

What is certain is there'll be one hell of a battle for share among the broadcast networks. As the May sweeps get under way, News Corp.'s Fox looks almost certain to take the No. 1 spot in the advertiser-important 18-49 demo. According the Nielsen Media Research season-to-date (Sept. 20, 2004-April 17, 2005) Fox ranked first with a 4.1 rating in adults 18-49. Fox has also seen improvements in its ratings around No. 1 show "American Idol," from "House" to Paris Hilton's "Simple Life 3."

While Mr. DeWitt is bullish about Fox's prospects this season, he adds, "other people make the point that they're building their castle on limited foundations and that they need breadth and programming strength."

Fox also named a new entertainment president, Peter Liguori. This former FX cable network programmer succeeded Gail Berman, who moved to Viacom's Paramount Pictures.

Viacom's CBS put in the next best showing and looks certain to finish the race in second place; season-to-date its rating among adults 18-49 is 4.0. CBS has the most solid schedule of all networks, with the fewest holes to fill going into next season. Its notable successes this year were winning the Thursday mantle from NBC Universal's NBC with shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Without a Trace." That will earn CBS big points with movie studios. CBS' reality shows, "Amazing Race" and "Survivor," continue to perform solidly, unlike the Martha Stewart-esque "Wickedly Perfect," which ended up canceled.


"We had a lot of positives," says JoAnn Ross, president-sales at CBS Network. "One of the biggest positives was the strength of our schedule, growth of adults 18-49 and stability of adults aged 25-54. ... The other thing is when people come into the marketplace they want to buy a full schedule-we provide that every night of the week. We took a chunk out of NBC; our Thursday night is a positive story."

ABC's best sales story this year is both its increase in ratings and increasing share of upscale audiences. Mike Shaw, president-sales and marketing at ABC Television, said at the Ad Age roundtable: "The mix of what we bring to the party this year is decidedly better. We're way up in `Good Morning America,' we're up in daytime, we're up in `World News Tonight.' So our momentum isn't just in prime."

ABC houses the two biggest hits of the season, "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost." Many buyers say that ABC has the most buzz; however, they're concerned that ABC could overplay its hand. "I'm not saying their success is spotty, but I think they could get it together a little better," Mr. DeWitt says. "I'm less certain of ABC than I am of CBS." Season-to-date ABC is in third with a 3.8 among adults 18-49.

NBC's fourth-place position is the biggest surprise of the season. NBC does command the most affluent audiences. In mid-April, NBC signed a $600 million deal to put National Football League "Sunday Night Football" on the schedule come 2006.


The TV upfront season historically started when longtime media executive Paul Schulman purchased fall TV time for marketer Ralston Purina Co.

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