Players size up upfront

Many panelists optimistic about ad prospects

The dance has started. Already networks and ad agency media buyers are sizing each other up as the music swells for the annual upfront extravaganza.

And even now, the sides are offering different assessments of just how hot to trot advertisers will be when they see the new primetime network pickups in three weeks.

MediaCom co-managing director Jon Mandel hazarded the increase in dollars this year over last should be in the 3% range, while network chieftains are much more sanguine about what they’ll pocket from advertisers.

NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker estimated the Peacock could see 10% increases in primetime over last year and that other dayparts should also see “solid gains.”

Year of cable

Both made their predictions during a far-ranging panel session Thursday at the monthly Hollywood Radio and TV Society newsmaker luncheon in Beverly Hills. Called “Who Pays for This?”, the session was moderated by senior Merrill Lynch entertainment analyst Jessica Reif-Cohen.

As for advertising earmarked for cable, Universal TV chairman Michael Jackson, another of the six panelists, opined he too was “pretty confident” about the upfront season.

Aside from a few network reality shows, the past year has been “the year of cable,” he said, adding that advertisers are scared not to be advertising and are thus likely to step up smartly this go-round.

The relatively upbeat assessment of advertising prospects was also shared by Tribune’s prexy-CEO Dennis FitzSimons, who said that despite a slight negative impact on his stations from the war in Iraq, he was hopeful there was “pent-up demand” out there on the part of advertisers.

Shrinking payments

On other fronts, however, the assembled panelists did not uniformly see eye to eye or have such an optimistic appraisal of the biz.

Bob Broder, a partner in talent agency BWCS, pointed out that “five families,” as it were, now control 85% of the media biz. From his point of view — repping TV writers, directors and producers — this handful of companies are “grinding down” the upfront payments to talent in order to hold down their own costs, “dealing away” the backend so that producers and writers don’t benefit as much, and “self-dealing” through their own distribution outlets.

Unfortunately, given the hour length of the session and the number of topics Reif-Cohen set out to cover, there was no follow-up discussion of Broder’s contentions.

To a question about further de-regulation in the business, only FitzSimons was willing to comment on his company’s overall position on the issue.

FitzSimons said Tribune is in favor of lifting the ban on newspaper-TV cross-ownership, calling the current stricture “archaic.” (Tribune owns both newspapers and TV stations.)

Rising prod’n costs

In other remarks, the panelists put the emphasis on the need for continued cost-containment and experimentation on the creative front.

Warner Bros. exec VP Bruce Rosenblum said production costs were far outstripping network license fees and that programming costs simply have to be spread out more evenly.

For his part, NBC’s Zucker argued the current pilot season, in which the same nets spend crazily to tie up the same limited pool of talent, was unsustainable.

“We’re going to have to go to a 52-week schedule over the next few years,” he said. “We’ll probably announce different 14-week cycles of shows,’ though he added there would still be the May upfronts for advertisers to get a handle on the skeds and inaugurate the upfront season.

As for the impact of reality shows, Zucker admitted that given their short life span, “they’re not quite the drop to the bottom line that we thought.”

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