Networks' upfront haul close to 2007 total

There’s more money flowing into advance primetime advertising commitments for the 2008-09 season than even the most optimistic network sales execs would have predicted a month ago.

TV’s upfront sales process broke wide open Thursday after slowly picking up steam in the first three days of the week (Daily Variety, June 4). Net execs and media buyers alike say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the stronger-than-expected level of coin that blue-chip advertisers are committing to the upfront — the annual frenzy when the nets book commitments for as much as 75%-85% of their ad time for the coming season.

Nobody’s making an estimate on an overall number for the marketplace just yet, but according to knowledgeable sources, the haul for the Big Four and CW should come in within a few hundred million of last year’s roughly $9 billion total. That’s much higher than the worst-case-scenario forecasts of total dollars dropping as much as 14% from last year. It’s also an achievement given the ratings woes that broadcasters have faced and the slowdown in the national economy.

NBC wrapped its broadcast sales Thursday with about $1.9 billion in advance bookings. The Peacock is pacing fourth among the Big Four in terms of rate increases. Peacock garnered cost-per-thousand viewer gains in the 5%-7% range, compared with 9%-10% for top-rated Fox, 8%-10% for ABC and 7%-8% for CBS.

Fox is said to be benefiting bigtime from its gamble of reducing commercial break time in its high-profile new dramas “Fringe,” set to bow in early September, and “Dollhouse,” slated to preem in January. Fox is generating as much as a 30% premium on spots in those shows, buyers said — which for those skeins adds to the pressure to score with auds so Fox won’t be looking at hefty make-goods.

Peacock insiders were said to have considered it a victory that this year’s upfront tally came in about $100 million higher than last year, given its ratings slump and uncertainty about its 2008-09 sked. However, NBC also sold more inventory this year than in 2007 — about 80% of its primetime spots vs. about 76% last year. ABC is also expected to sell around 80% of its inventory.

NBC and CW, which also took a bit of a ratings hit last season, were buoyed by the overall strength of the market. CW was said to be getting 6%-8% CPM increases for its youthful-skewing sked even as the netlet’s volume of weekly inventory dropped by 30%, or 10 hours a week of programming down from 15, with its decision to outsource the programming of its Sunday night sked to financier Media Rights Capital (Daily Variety, May 12).

Biz insiders said the economic jitters actually helped strengthen the upfront take, because marketers looking to pare down spending in some areas were more focused on tried-and-true means of advertising like TV. And because spot sales in the scatter market for short-term sales, where prices can fluctuate significantly depending on supply of inventory, have been strong in the past two quarters, advertisers are eager to nail down prices with longer-lead time upfront buys.

“There’s a renewed focus on TV this year,” said one media buyer, noting specific spending growth among sectors including pharmaceuticals, technology and motion pictures, as well as surprising stability among domestic automakers.

“There’s certainly more dollars in the marketplace — that’s what’s astounding. It flies in the face of some of the macroeconomic factors out there right now. I think advertisers don’t want to walk away from keeping their brand messages alive, and national TV is still the best way to do that,” the buyer said.

Broadcasters are doing better than expected after a strike-disrupted season, but it’s also clear that some ad coin is shifting from the broadcast to the cable column this year.

Now that broadcasters are expected to wrap their sales by the end of the week, media buyers’ focus turns to the cable side, where the talk of the market is Turner Broadcasting’s aggressive stance: It’s seeking CPM increases of 12% and above for cablers TNT and TBS. Many competing cablers are waiting to see if those demands are met before consummating their own deals.

Despite the healthier-than-expected volume, buyers said Turner was being unrealistically bold amid the broader economic uncertainty.

“This isn’t the kind of marketplace for that positioning, especially when everyone knows (Turner’s) ratings are up and they’ve got a lot more capacity to sell,” said one prominent buyer.

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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