Upfronts may disappoint Big 6

LAS VEGAS — This year’s cautious and drawn-out upfront ad market was well under way by Thursday, but net execs and media buyers both warned that collectively, the broadcast nets will barely break even with last year’s take given the troubled broadcast season and the lure of cable.

In 2003, the nets took in a staggering $9.2 billion, up from $8.1 billion in 2002. While the nets weren’t looking for the same feast this go-round, TV industry execs had predicted an overall take of $9.6 billion-$9.8 billion.

Now that threshold is looking unlikely.

“This year has been markedly different. The money is not being thrown at the networks,” one top media buyer said.

As predicted, CBS’ stable sked is paying off. By all accounts, the Eye will post the highest CPM hikes — 9%-10% — and will be the only one of the four major nets to easily take in more than the money it did last year, when it wrote roughly $2.2 billion in business and saw CPM (cost-per-thousand impressions) increases of 12%-14%.

Advertisers, stung by the troubled first half of the 2003-04 TV season, have been threatening to divert more money from broadcast to cable and other media. They may be making good on that threat.

Part of the cycle

At the same time, net execs and even media buyers say it’s not unusual to have a lackluster year following a boon year.

In 2003, the upfront market closed almost immediately after the network upfront presentations, with media buyers virtually storming the network gates and shelling out a record $9.2 billion. Now media buyers and advertisers are being far more deliberate, willing to take their time and hold out for lower prices.

Buyers aren’t the only ones playing it cool.

CBS has been holding out for low double-digit CPM increases. Eye is at least halfway done with its sales.

NBC, which is looking at CPM increases of 7%-8%, has been trying to capitalize on CBS’ stance by lowering rates in certain cases in order to push up the volume and take money off the table and away from CBS. Estimates are that NBC may just break even with last year’s take, which crossed the $3 billion mark.

In 2003, both NBC and Fox saw whopping CPM increases of 15%-16%.

The Peacock still will take in more money than any other net, and it also boasts the highest ad rates — proof of its longtime lead in the industry’s prized demo of adults 18-49. But there is little doubt that the loss of “Friends” from the Thursday night lineup has affected business for NBC.

Fox even with 2003

Fox appears to be holding its own. Net is predicted to break about even with last year, when it wrote $1.6 billion in biz. Like the Peacock, it is looking at CPM increases of 7%-8%.

It is uncertain what UPN’s CPM increases will be, although the net is expected to do well, perhaps nearing a 10% increase.

The WB is looking at CPM increases of 7%-8% and will probably write close to $710 million in biz, the same as last year.

ABC is looking at the lowest CPM increases, 4%-6%, and perhaps even lower on some deals. That means that the Alphabet will be down from the $1.7 billion it wrote in 2003 upfront sales.

“ABC may be slugging all the way through next week,” one buyer said.

The CPM increases at these networks do not entirely make up for ratings losses and hence the overall take will probably not exceed last year’s.

By Thursday afternoon, the WB was close to being sold out, NBC was well on its way, and Fox had completed a large chunk of business.

Always competitive, net execs — speaking about each other and not themselves — said the final CPM increases would come in at the lower end of the range. All cautioned that no number is final until the market closes and the buyers head back for Madison Avenue.

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