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Networks forgo March fetes

Broadcast pre-upfront presentations had become glamorous, multimedia events 3/10/2002 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Normally, in March, 200 top media buyers trek from New York to Los Angeles to get an early glimpse of what the major broadcast networks have cooking in development. The pre-upfront presentations, called the March Screenings, have become glamorous, with multimedia presentations and plenty of stars.

Last year, for example, during ABC's March meeting, Jason Alexander delivered a rollicking 20-minute monologue that excited ABC brass and ad execs about what turned out to be a sitcom bomb called Bob Patterson. On the other hand; Sally Field spoke with passion about her new Supreme Court drama, The Court,
which has yet to be put on ABC's prime time docket but seems a bright prospect.

But that was then, and this is recessionary now. The March Screenings have disappeared since the networks took it on the chin when the advertising market sank alongside the national economy.

"Last year was a difficult year on a lot of different levels, with Sept. 11 and the economy," says The WB Executive Vice President of Sales Bill Morningstar. "The ad community couldn't justify sending people across the country from a financial standpoint, and I think the networks had a tough time justifying the expense as well."

Some media buyers don't think it's such a good idea to scrap the meetings.

"It's always a good idea to show your clients how much money you are investing and how badly you are looking to improve your position [by showcasing] all of the people that you lined up in front of and behind the camera," says media buyer Paul Schulman, of Advanswers PHD. "I think it's a good idea to plant seeds in the month of March to precede your May upfronts. I think it's really a two-step deal."

The canceled March meetings are just one glaring sign that the relationship between media buyers and the networks was strained by the sluggish 2001 upfront season. The traditional upfront buying season didn't break open until midsummer, and many networks saw double-digit sales declines as they were forced to sell inventory at much cheaper prices than the year before. Coming off three years of record highs and dotcom riches, the broadcast nets didn't know what hit them.

"The numbers that I saw decline in broadcast, cable and syndication across the board were devastating," says the top sales executive at one major network. "I think it was kind of a watershed season. I think we have learned a number of lessons from the last upfront: Most important, when the networks roll back prices, money leaves the market. People spend less money and keep more in their pockets. So I think all of us know that's not a good idea."

CBS was the only network to hold out last year, refusing to cave in to the lowered upfront marketplace and holding back a considerable amount of scatter inventory. Network executives say the move paid off, because the network's prime time ratings fared well, the economy picked up, and, perhaps as important, ABC tanked, giving advertisers one less place to put their money.

CBS President Les Moonves says he is ready to do the same thing again this year if the prices aren't right.

Others agree. Says The WB's Morningstar, "I think the sellers are much more prepared to wait this time around because we waited so long last year."

The WB just posted its best fourth-quarter sales results in the network's history, despite slightly lower ratings than the previous season. "I think everybody is looking for indicators right now," says Morningstar, "and so far our indicators have been good."

Media buyers say NBC's deal to keep Friends
on next season should ensure another strong upfront for the top-rated network. CBS executives say newly inherited UPN is "undervalued" and primed for a strong season with advertisers. ABC, of course, is expected to get the most scrutiny.

The upfronts are scheduled for May 13-17 in New York, with NBC again leading off the pack on Monday, May 13.

Jim McNamara, president of Spanish-language network Telemundo, is looking forward to a very bright upfront season for two reasons: new ownership by NBC and a new census that shows the tremendous growth in the Hispanic population. He expects Telemundo to sell ad time to 30 to 40 new clients during the upfront market. "The census will be huge for us," he says, and the NBC tie-in helps.

A really upfront guide
Here's an early planning guide to cable and broadcast-network presentations (as of press time). All are in New York except where noted
*Atlanta **Dallas ***Minneapolis
Source: Cable Advertising Bureau; Broadcasting & Cable
NBC May 13
The WB May 14
ABC May 14
Telemundo May 14
Pax May 15
Univision May 15
CBS May 15
UPN May 16
Fox May 16
Nickelodeon March 12
TV Guide Channel March 15
Oxygen April 4
HGTV/DIY April 8*
CNBC April 9
HGTV/DIY April 9**
MTV April 10
TNN April 11
VH1 April 18
Comedy Central April 23
TV Land/Nick April 24
HGTV/DIY April 25***
ABC Family April 30