Editorial: Captured by the upfront

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It's been a disappointing upfront TV market. Not for the TV business, to be sure, nor for anyone hungry for bullish signs for the ad economy. It's disappointing for what it says about the state of marketer thinking. Executives in other media, of course, fret there will be less funding for them. But the familiar race to TV shows that the safety of the proven and familiar still overwhelms talk about finding more creative, less costly ways of going to market.

Even with its high-cost, clutter, TiVo worries and splintering audiences, marketers can't imagine life without TV, and no one seriously suggests it's ripe for replacement. But it takes money to devise, test and exploit other strategies and tools, from new forms of branded content, PR and event marketing to in-store, the Internet and the many other avenues the continuing technology revolution is spawning-to say nothing of the established performers in other existing media.

Marketers can't escape upfront fever-not when they fear "missing the market" will cost them more later; not when 2004 has a summer Olympics and a national election in the offing; not when they know how to buy and evaluate TV and other avenues are less "certain." But once the TV budget is funded, where will the dollars be to find out if other means can also get the word out, generate leads, move product-and bring the cost of marketing down?

There is a way out. TV will get its share of the budget, but dollars must be reserved for getting the most from other media, both new and existing. Some day a more equitable market will replace the upfront. Until then, if marketers can't avoid it they can avoid being its prisoner.

The upfront is not the barometer for all of advertising any more. If it's an indicator of anything, it's a measure of advertiser willingness to pursue a different future. By that standard, there's not a lot to crow about this year.

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