Ad exex hail broadcasters' plans

NEW YORK — Year-round launch dates could play a leading role in this year’s upfront market as wary advertisers look for proof that the broadcast nets can stop the flight of bored viewers to cable and other entertainment when repeats start airing in the dog days of summer.

ABC, Fox, NBC and the WB all referred to summer launches when hosting a series of pre-upfront meetings for media buyers last week in Los Angeles. Buyers such as MindShare’s Peter Tortorici say they were pleased.

“They clearly said they wanted to be much more proactive, assuring plenty of promotion. It was more than just form; it was the level of commitment. It takes a certain level of planning and investment to make that kind of change. They’ve taken what is a courageous step forward and said, ‘OK, we are doing it,’ ” said Tortorici, a former CBS Entertainment topper.

This year’s upfront ad buy market could prove a dicey ride for the networks, whose clout has diminished with the rise of cable, digital video recorders, vidgames and the Internet. Madison Avenue has yet to see all clients’ ad budgets but warns that companies don’t want to pay the 12% rate hikes they saw last year, when the broadcasters took in a record $9.3 billion during the upfront.

More than ever before, advertisers are considering shifting money away from broadcast TV to cable, product-placement deals, syndicated TV, branded entertainment and the Internet. A recent study released by the Assn. of National Advertisers showed that 43% of advertisers intend to do so.

Original programs launched during the summer used to be rejects that had been written off by the nets. That changed in the past several years, as the nets bowed reality shows during the summer months. Last summer, Fox scored a hit when launching scripted sudser “The OC.”

“I think we are all very much in favor of shifting away from the traditional fall start. The networks can’t keep forfeiting viewers — and especially younger viewers — to cable,” said a top Gotham buyer who was at the L.A. meetings.

Madison Avenue singles out Fox and NBC — which will bow some of its fall season in late August and early September following the Summer Olympics — as leaders in this relatively uncharted landscape. Fox plans to launch the Hawaii-set drama “North Shore” and the untitled Method Man/Redman comedy project this summer. WB and ABC also are planning summer projects.

“This will be an upfront unlike any Fox has had in its history,” a net exec said. “The big story for us is that Fox now starts in June. There will be original programming all summer long. “We need to make ourselves more relevant to the younger audience.”

The WB intends to launch the Aaron Spelling-produced family drama “Summerland” and Jeff Foxworthy’s “Blue Collar” sketch comedy series this summer and is also said to be looking at spreading out launch dates throughout the calendar year.

By all accounts, Madison Avenue believes CBS to be in the most stable shape as the upfront season kicks off, thanks to its older-skewing audience and hit franchises such as “CSI” and “Survivor.” Indeed the Eye isn’t actively talking about moving to a year-round TV schedule so long as its crime dramas repeat well in the summer.

CBS didn’t hold pre-upfront meeting last week. In the past several years, nearly all the networks stopped holding such sessions, but most resurrected the meet-and-greets this year. Several will hold another round of pre-upfront sessions in Gotham this week.

“The networks started them up again because of all the broadcast network bashing that is going on,” one media buyer said.

ABC went one step further, dispatching a mini task force in January to meet with roughly 200 agencies and remind them that of all the media available to advertisers, network TV still has the most mass appeal.

In particular, the Alphabet’s sales force wanted to educate younger media buyers who don’t remember the pre-cable salad days when broadcast nets ruled.

ABC has yet to announce a program targeted for a summer launch, but media buyers said the net is indeed planning to do so. One of those shows could be a program jointly developed by the Alphabet and MindShare under a new partnership designed to give the ad community a better chance to, among other things, build product branding into a script.

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