Wet Week Clears Way For Hot Ad Market

Programming gets mostly thumbs-up from buyers

Complete coverage of the 2011 upfronts
The Best and Worst of Upfronts 2011
ABC: Lee Gets Network Laughing Again
CBS: Scheduling For Strength
Fox: 'In It to Win It' With Big Bets Like 'X Factor'
NBC: Greenblatt Wants To Find His New 'Voice'
The CW: Pushing for More Original Programming
Turner: Programs Power Through Upfront Clips Snafu
ESPN: Flexing Its Marketing Muscle

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A near constant rain in New York City may have dampened the broadcast networks’ upfront week, but after getting their first taste of the networks’ plans, ad buyers came away with mainly bright expectations.

Chris Geraci, president for national broadcast at media agency OMD, pronounced this year’s crop as “slightly better than last year.”

“What I saw was stronger than in the last couple of years. We’ll see how viewers react,” said Miraj Parikh, VP and media director at Spark Communications. “CBS was really strong. They must have a lot of confidence in Person of Interest,” the new show that will replace CSI on Thursday night, the most important night for big-spending advertisers like automakers, retailers and movie studios.

Parikh also liked programming moves by CBS and Fox on Saturdays that offer advertisers more options.

The programming was “impressive in a couple of places,” said Kris Magel, executive VP for national broadcast at Initiative. “CBS is doing a great job keeping a good thing going. Fox has a very strong schedule and an opportunity to add audience in the fourth quarter with The X Factor and Terra Nova.” And the CW, in the last couple of years, “has found its brand very successfully,” Magel added.

Expectations have been that the upfront market will be strong, with price increases on a cost-per-thousand viewer basis above 10% and sales by the broadcasters topping $9 billion. Some network executives said they expect the market to break quickly out of the starting gate with high demand whipping it towards the finish line.

Media buyers acknowledged that the math of increased demand and a smaller Nielsen universe would make for a strong market. But they said the prospect of big price inflation would slow the deal-making process, which this year is further complicated by uncertainty over whether or not (or more probably, when) National Football League games will be played in the fourth quarter.

All of the networks promoted the power of broadcast to help build brands and create sales, with most pointing to research that backs them up. Cable programmers Turner Broadcasting and ESPN, which also made presentations last week, made similar claims about their effectiveness.

The upfront presentations “give you confidence in the power of television, to varying degrees, depending on the day of the week,” said Shari Cohen, copresident of Mindshare.

But primarily, the week’s presentations were about shows for the new season and the networks mostly got passing grades from the buyers, who will wait to see full pilots before making final judgments.

With the presentations out of the way, buyers and sellers are ready to get down to business. Several agency executives said that they were waiting to get budgets from clients, and that the budgets they had seen had not yet certified that the market would be as huge as sellers hoped.

Magel for one said he was tired of hearing how hot the market is this quarter, and thinking that that should apply to the upfront. “Everyone needs to keep the full year picture in mind,” he said, and that prices in the upfront have to be based on that. “It’s been a strong year for TV, and it will be a pretty strong year for TV next year.”

Magel noted that clients have found that there is strong return on investment with national television advertising, particularly when TV and digital work together. The combination of electronic media is “pulling money out of other sectors of the media,” he said.

But Magel added that there are some concerns on the horizon. Commodity prices are up, and that can impact brand budgets. Oil prices are up, and that can curtail consumer spending and affect both gross national product and business results.

From the buyers’ perspective, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel in this market. “The people who were talking about 20% a few weeks ago are talking about 10% now,” said Aaron Cohen, executive VP for national broadcast at Horizon Media. “I’ll be biding my time. This isn’t going to be a three-day turnaround. There’s no reason to make a fast commitment that turns into a bad commitment.”`

Cable is expected to post even bigger gains and take in nearly as many dollars as the broadcasters in the upfront for the first time ever. But some sales execs are concerned that some cable groups that posted very big ratings gains over the past year might accept moderate price increases in order to get advertisers to put more money on the table.

During their presentations, the broadcasters all continued to talk digital, promising that they could help marketers get their messages to viewers wherever they watched shows, whether online, via video on demand or mobile.

Social media was also a huge buzzword during the week, with networks keeping score on how many fans and followers they had on outlets including Facebook and Twitter.

The CW even announced Cwingo, a bingo game that viewers can access via Facebook and play against their friends. Players check off scenes from the shows they’re watching, plus scenes from commercials, which The CW hopes will benefit sponsors.

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette