The scatter market picked up in third and fourth quarter

NEW YORK — The upfront may still be three months away, but network ad sales execs are showing signs of optimism regarding how they might fare this spring.

That’s a big change from even a few months ago, when net execs saw little light at the end of the soft ad tunnel.

With advertisers committing about $7 billion in advance buys last year, the six broadcast webs saw a 15% dip in their upfront intake from the previous year’s $8 billion bonanza.

Now media buyers and network sales execs are trying to anticipate this year’s marketplace.

It may be too soon to tell, but sellers say they are starting to see a few good signs in their favor.

The scatter market — when ad dollars outside the upfronts are spen t– picked up significantly in third and fourth quarter. And big events like the Olympics and the Academy Awards prove that blurbmeisters will lay out the bucks if the programming is right.

“Scatter was a lot better than people thought it would be,” says Mike Shaw, ABC’s prexy of sales and marketing. “As a signpost for the upfront, that’s certainly good. We feel a lot better about the economy.”

Shaw says with just a month and a half to go, the net is almost sold out of Academy Awards ads — far ahead of where they were last year.

“It points to the fact that consumers are going to be leading the economic recovery and if that’s the case, advertising is more important than ever,” he says.

Noting that second-quarter scatter advertising was up 5%-15% over last year’s upfront, Viacom chief operating officer Mel Karmazin expressed confidence for this year during a recent earnings call with analysts. He attributed the uptick to growing advertiser demand for tight inventory due to the lack of available ad time at ABC and Fox, which are steeped in make-goods. The lesson learned from last year’s upfront? “The money shows up,” said Karmazin, who led CBS’ mandate to hold firm on prices when other nets were folding.

The WB’s prexy-chief operating officer Jed Petrick says the marketplace has gotten healthier as the year progresses.

“I heard one very highly regarded leader of one of the new mega-buying operations say that last year was an over-correction,” Petrick says.

Of course, there is some wishful thinking in the air: The nets are hopeful that sales will pick up from last year, while the buyers are keeping their fingers crossed that the soft economy will translate into bargain basement prices.

“It’s premature to say what will happen in the upfront. The networks don’t have a grasp of what advertisers are planning on spending for the next year,” says Bob Flood, senior VP, director of national electronic media for Optimedia Intl.

Not only have the nets not yet presented their development slates for next fall, but there’s also continued uncertainty about the economy.

Some buyers say that a strong scatter doesn’t necessarily guarantee a solid upfront — particularly because scatter was fueled, in part, by ad dollars held back during last year’s upfront.

“There are so many question marks,” says Mel Berning, prexy U.S. Broadcast for MediaVest. “The posturing that starts about now is always fun, but it’s all posturing.”

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