Upfront 07

Networks Cut to Chase, Curry Favor With Buyers

With the Myriad Issues Around This Year's Upfront, Broadcasters Kept Annual Show-and-Tell Brief

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- This year's upfront presentations were more relevant for TV buyers, more focused on the consumer, and, perhaps best of all, they were over in record time.
'Pretty ugly': ABC proved the exception to the rule as other nets dialed back the stars and hype.
'Pretty ugly': ABC proved the exception to the rule as other nets dialed back the stars and hype. Credit: Steve Fenn

With digital inventory playing a bigger role than last year and debate raging over issues such as how to count time-shifted viewers, the 2007 upfront market may be more complicated than ever before, but the networks scored big points with the buyers for focusing on what they needed to focus on -- the new shows in which they seek ad investment -- and making their presentations super swift.

All five broadcast networks finished their annual show-and-tell in record time, clocking in at an average of 75 minutes each. Fox, which kept guests in their seats for a laborious three hours last year, wrapped things up in just over an hour, courtesy of a smart "24" spoof starring entertainment head Peter Liguori and Kiefer Sutherland. "You're not dealing with a ticking time bomb, Mr. President. Just shorten your speech," Jack Bauer told Mr. Liguori, who did just that. Even CBS, where President-CEO Leslie Moonves has been famously verbose in the past, had Entertainment President Nina Tassler commenting on how quickly he brought her out onstage this year.

Upfront death?
Such feats did not go unnoticed by buyers. "We were somewhat vocal for more streamlined presentations last year, and they clearly listened to that," said Andy Donchin, Carat's director-national broadcast. "I was really pleased with them all this year." Indeed, as one major marketer executive noted, if in just one year the networks can shrink their presentations from three hours to one, it's probably a good indication that we're about five years away from doing away with the upfront presentations altogether.

And given the myriad issues around this year's market, networks were right to keep presentations tight. Most buyers predict the sellers' take will end up flat or down compared to last year's $9 billion. And with the complexities of a switch to commercial ratings from program ratings coming at the end of this month, hashing out just how the networks will get credited for time-shifted viewing is likely to draw out negotiations. Networks and buyers will be spending plenty of time together in coming weeks.

The week was not entirely without spectacle. As Initiative CEO Alec Gerster noted, upfront excess was "alive and well" at ABC's presentation, which included a full Broadway chorus line by the cast of "Ugly Betty" and a marching band taking to the aisles as buckets of confetti fell on attendees. And the Pussycat Dolls at CW's show were whipping their hair and hips around with impressive energy given it was only 10 a.m. Even Marc Anthony showed up in the middle of Univision's presentation for a quick song.

Leaner presentations
But, overall, the stars and hype were dialed down. There was less time devoted to returning shows, a minimum of pointless chatter from new talent and only one night-by-night programming run-through (naturally, CBS, given Mr. Moonves' renowned competitive streak, kept things old school).

"People were smart with their presentations; they kept them tight and had some focus," said John Swift, managing director of PHD. "We're actually not in a bad place. This isn't one of those places where we were four or five years ago, where there was really a dearth of buzz value in network TV."

There was more evidence than ever before that the TV networks were interested in viewers interacting with the content. CBS opened with a YouTube video from "CSI" fan StewMurray47, who had captured Caruso's "endless one-liners" in an amusing mash-up. NBC proposed six special episodes of "Heroes" dubbed "Origins," which will allow viewers to vote for a new cast member for the following season. And CW offered a Sunday-night best-of-the-web clip show where viewers will be able to upload their own videos to the site.

Univision invites viewers onstage
Univision, which has always stressed engagement over numbers, went a step further. New CEO Joe Uva dubbed the network's presentation "the first user-generated upfront." It featured 14 viewers onstage who had sent in YouTube-like videos about why they (and their kids, dogs and pet iguanas) love Univision. Dubbed Team Univision, the presence of those genuine viewers and their enthusiastic appreciation -- of coming novelas, a miniseries Jennifer Lopez turned up to describe, and a performance by Marc Anthony and other highlights -- was a clever sign of the audience engagement all the networks are trying to claim.

In addition there was more talk than usual about relevant trading issues such as commercial ratings and engagement, as well as offers of branded integrations from the network's ad-sales chiefs.

Surprisingly, the CW's presentation seemed to be the buyers' favorite, with a slate of promising shows and a clear strategy for hyper-targeting its core 18-to-34-year-old audience. Coming fourth out of the five major presentations, the WB/UPN hybrid kept its focus on experimenting with unusual ad configurations. The net announced it would offer five-second branded "Cwickies" for pod integration, coupled with its popular content wraps from last season. Jason Maltby, executive director of broadcast at MindShare, said he expected to see more examples of pod experimentation from the networks and was pleasantly surprised by CW's offerings. "They probably had the lead on unique formatting ideas," he said.

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Photo: Michael Courtney Photo: Gale Adler
From producer Kevin Smith, this comedic show about a 21-year-old guy whose parents sell his soul to the devil has the potential to become the next "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Jason Maltby, MindShare's director broadcast, said he'd watch as long as Smith stays onboard.
Just because it worked for a Geico commercial doesn't necessarily mean it translates to a half-hour sitcom. Laura Carraccioli-Davis, Starcom's director entertainment, was dreading the pilot should it turn out to be "truly ... as bad as that clip was."
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Photo: Joe Viles
The season's highest-profile comedy with the most can't-miss cast: "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer and "Everybody Loves Raymond" vet Patricia Heaton. Brad Adgate, Horizon's director of research, said the show looks "cute" and would provide a good lead-in to sophomore sitcom 'Til Death.'"
In a season full of time travelers, this show has the most hurdles to jump in some buyers' minds. Entertainment President Kevin Reillymay have touted the show's pilot as having the best test scores in five years, but Magna Global's Steve Sternberg pointed out that's "usually not a good sign."
"Sex and the City" clones "Lipstick Jungle" and "Cashmere Mafia" will likely cancel each other out, but this male-oriented take on the highpowered-friends show looks like it could rise above the pack of copycats.
Sure, a show about a single vampire looking for love hasn't been done a million times before, but does that make it any good? As one buyer bluntly put it, "I wouldn't loan any money to that show."
Contributing: Claire Atkinson, Laurel Wentz
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