The automakers should power this year's upfront, while digital could make it interesting. That's according to the heads of advertising sales at the major broadcast networks. As they prepare for this week's star-studded presentations of their fall schedules, the sales chiefs spoke with B&C about the market, changes in the industry and other factors that could affect the $9 billion in upfront sales they expect to make for the 2012-13 season.
While cable may generate more upfront ad dollars than the broadcast networks this year, the sales execs maintain that broadcast is still essential to marketers. "Network television remains a core medium to reach a broad-based audience," says Toby Byrne, president of ad sales for Fox Broadcasting. "Primetime TV is a crucial element to launch products and keep brands relevant and top of mind for consumers."
Naturally, the broadcast execs all think that sales and prices will be up again this year, following last year's extremely strong market. "It's definitely going to be up. I don't think it will be as high as last year, but there are a lot of good things to buy," says Marianne Gambelli, president, network advertising sales at NBC. "I think the market will be healthy. Every client we spoke to has a product they're launching. They feel there's opportunity next year."
"With all of our meetings with clients across different categories, many are still planning big brand launches, big extensions, new opportunities," says Geri Wang, president of sales and marketing at ABC.
The automakers have a lot of cars to sell and are expected to rush to grab the limited inventory in the most popular shows, giving prices a boost. Retailers are also expected to be eager buyers, especially in the fourth-quarter holiday season.
As they prepare for the selling onslaught, each sales executive is upbeat about the hand they'll be playing, regardless of where they rank in the ratings. Their pitches are fine-tuned.
At CBS, where CEO Leslie Moonves has said the network will push for double-digit price increases and lead the market, ad sales president Jo Ann Ross says: "We are the most-watched television network, we deliver the best audience, we deliver the best content."
At Fox, where lower American Idol ratings might make it tough to equal last year's upfront sales, Byrne says: "We feel good about our programming, who we are reaching and how we reach them across various platforms. Ultimately, it is our shows and the audience we reach that differentiates us from our competitors."
"We really believe in our content," says ABC's Wang. "We have a lot of product in development and we feel good about our position. We had a solid year. Our clients and our buyers and our viewers love Revenge. They love Once Upon a Time. And, we're excited to have Modern Family be up year-over-year."
Gambelli sees NBC rebounding. "We feel like we have positive momentum," she says. "If you look at The Voice and Smash, we've accomplished what we set out to. And the development looks good. So NBC is looking to reposition itself within the mix, still retaining that quality audience but looking for broader, more commercial programming."
While programming will be the centerpiece of the week's presentations, there will also be much talk about digital.
"We think we're at an inflection point where we're talking about having a video upfront," says Wang. "Upwards of 10% in terms of time spent is coming through our on-demand screens, so we feel it's a really good time to be able to offer up one opportunity across all the screens to re-aggregate the ABC audience and go to market with a video strategy."
ABC wants to have one negotiation and make one deal covering linear and digital video with clients. "All of this allows for more client opportunity to participate in original TV content," Wang says. "Different shows and different content will create different opportunities. So we're experimenting, and we are absolutely very comfortable with that experimentation and risk and solving for the future."
NBC is taking an approach it calls fluidity, which lets advertisers shift funds between TV and other video inventory. "For the marketplace, the big issue is going to be digital and how it plays into the television buy, and whether we sell across television or sell television and digital together," says Gambelli. "That's where the real growth opportunity comes, especially in broadcast."
"That's probably going to be the game-changer of the upfront. Advertisers are looking to push Nielsen to come up with a single-source measurement, as are we," Gambelli adds.
CBS is looking at digital opportunities with its interactive division. "We're going to work collaboratively with clients, and our aim is to be as flexible as possible," says Ross.
Meanwhile, technology companies like Google and Yahoo held NewFront meetings this month aimed at grabbing TV ad dollars for their new online video products. But it's unclear whether or not money spent on digital video will come from traditional TV budgets.
"The video business is alive and well as evidenced by all the newfronts, which is a good thing for everybody," says Wang. "More choice for the audience means there's more choice for our clients. And we welcome the competition."
Broadcasters are constantly doing research proving that their nets do a better job of getting products to move off the shelves than other options. CBS research chief David Poltrack has been doing research that specifically links viewers of shows to product sales.
"There's a lot of that data out there and there are a lot of agencies that do their own segmentation, but it seems that when we come to the table to chat about that, everybody leans forward because Dave really is ahead of the pack on it," says Ross. "And because of our bigger numbers and our more popular shows and our across-the-board success in delivering the audience, we come out basically smelling like a rose, so it's all good."
Turner Broadcasting, ESPN and USA Network also will be presenting to buyers this week, and cable networks expect to ring up healthy sales for 2012-13 as well. "It's going to be a healthy upfront," says David Levy, president of ad sales, distribution and sports at Turner Broadcasting. "We're coming off a record-breaking upfront [in 2011] and there were no cancellation options, so I anticipate that even more scatter money comes into this marketplace."
Levy says Turner is selling video-on-demand ads with the television ads. "Broadband is still having some challenges from the agency perspective," he says. "Agencies have not fully embraced that they have the rights. And the way Nielsen is set up today is, if every single unit isn't exactly the same from a TV perspective, we get no value, even if 99% of them are correct."
Lou LaTorre, president of ad sales for Fox Cable, expects the cable upfront to top $10 billion. "Auto will drive pricing. The economy's going along pretty well, and the scatter market is still pretty vibrant," says LaTorre, who correctly predicted last year's 16% rise for cable.
This year, he thinks cable will be plus 8% or plus 9% on volume, while broadcast will be plus 6%. "There's not a ton of inventory to go around. So given all of that, I think it's going to be a healthy market," LaTorre says.