Memo From the Ultimate Upfront Market-Watcher

Spark SMG’s John Muszynski suggests keeping an eye on digital and audience estimates

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Media buyer John Muszynski, a 2011 B&C Hall of Fame inductee, said he is looking forward to upfront week. Among other reasons, he is excited to see if the programming the networks plan to add to their schedules will push the ratings needle forward. "Really, the only way to save this whole situation and start changing the conversation we're having is if the broadcast networks hit on some really strong shows and they start bringing the viewers back," said Muszynski, chief investment officer for Spark. But Muszynski, who has years of upfronts under his belt, cautions that everyone would be wise to keep an eye on several other aspects of the market as well.

Digital really matters: "We're seeing more and more money move from traditional television to digital video," Muszynski said. How much? "There were certain agencies, I know SMG was one of them, we moved a fair amount of money [to digital] and networks felt the movement of that money," he said. Some dollars are going to the big media companies and the networks' full-episode players. "But that's not really where the bulk of the volume is going," Muszynski adds. "The bulk is going to other places, whether that's the major portals or in short form." The spending shift is not intended to send some sort of message to the networks or a gambit to moderate price increases. "This is about following the consumer," he said. "They're ahead of us in a lot of cases in terms of their acceptance of new technology. So we've got to be able to anticipate and aggressively follow them and hopefully even get out ahead of them. And that's why [Spark SMG has] invested so heavily into technology and doing research and buying data and looking at all the different innovative opportunities that exist out there."

Lots of second-screen talk: "I think a lot of people will be talking about secondscreen and enhancements to the experience," Muszynski said. "We're way out ahead of that. We've been doing exhaustive research on second-screen and we've been doing cross-platform deals for years. I think you're going to hear more people touting that stuff, and that they finally can do it and they can measure it. There's going to be a lot of that conversation. I don't think that's going to have a big impact on the market, though."

Beware the audience estimates: With ratings down again this season for the broadcast networks, "the biggest ‘watch out' goes to buyers who aren't paying real close attention to the ratings estimates," Muszynski said. "Because the networks might feel that the only way they can make it is if they jack up and inflate their ratings estimate and just hope to God that these shows take off. Well, when they don't, the advertiser's sitting there with missing their point goals, erratic delivery [done] not according to plan, and the quality of inventory you're getting back in exchange is generally not as good as what you initially bought. So one of the things we'll be watching out very carefully for is their rating estimates vs. ours. We always look at that. But I'm anticipating this is going to be a year where they're really going to jack around with that."