Pre-sales add up to rosy ad pic for nets

Available primetime spots become tightest in recent memory

This summer’s upfront bonanza wasn’t funny money after all — and network sales execs are laughing all the way to the bank.

Web execs and media buyers held their breath after this year’s pre-season ad sales marketplace matched 2000’s all-time $8.1 billion record.

Naysayers warned against reading too much into that tally, given that advertisers could still cancel their commitments or ratings could go further south.

The jury’s still out on whether the nets will meet their ratings guarantees. But as the fall season launches this week, advertisers are still clamoring to get into primetime — and the broadcast ad marketplace remains robust.

“Consumers are still driving the economy, and we’re the way to reach consumers,” says Fox sales prexy Jon Nesvig. “The film business, between the way they’re marketing DVDs and movies, is real strong, while auto spending stayed strong.”

Few advertisers have exercised their option to take back upfront dollars, which means available primetime inventory for the 2002-03 season has become the tightest in recent memory.

“The expectations are so high for the scatter (the leftover spots not sold during the spring upfront sales frenzy) market, in terms of price increases, that advertisers are going to be very reluctant to take cancellations unless they have to,” says media buying analyst Jack Myers.

Even if a bevy of advertisers had canceled orders, inventory would still have been tight at the webs. Most of the networks sold around 85% of their spots by mid-June; generally, the nets sell about 70% to 75% of their inventory in upfront.

But after a lackluster 2001 market, the nets weren’t taking any chances — particularly ABC and Fox, which experienced erosion last season and needed to sell a few more spots to achieve sales goals (although, thanks to increased cost-per-thousand rates, they didn’t have to go overboard).

At this point, most networks are now between 90% and 93% sold out — making it the tightest scatter market in years.

With inventory so scarce, the nets are already selling scatter spots at double-digit increases over upfront prices, and are even pushing advertisers out of primetime to other, less crowded dayparts such as sports and daytime.

But as they get close to selling out, the networks also may lose out on even more money should some of their new series do wildly better than expected, preventing them from reaping mega rewards in the scatter marketplace.

And on the flipside, there’s less room for error, as the nets may be forced to hand cash back if their schedules collapse and there’s no room for “make- good” spots.

“If the networks do have ratings underdelivery, they’re probably going to try to either shift the advertising down into news or daytime, which is still soft,” Myers says. “But advertisers don’t want money back. It comes after the advertising period, so it’s not like they can really use it.”

Balancing upfront sales with scatter sales and potential make-good situations in mind is all a part of the marketplace gamble, Nesvig says.

“That’s one of the fun things about managing this business, you’re managing unknowns,” he says. “This is the time of year to be concerned about everything.”

Meanwhile, as the broadcasters get close to sell out, that’s also good news for the cable nets, which can pick up some of the slack. According to a recent study released by Myers, advertisers expect cable to see the biggest increases in 2003.

“The interesting thing will be to watch the cable market over the next couple of months,” Myers says.

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