Ad execs say quality pays off in the end

The 2009 upfront is a couple of weeks away, but already “the hunt is on” for the next network hit, says Jackie Kulesza, senior VP and activation director for Starcom USA, the media agency that handles Walt Disney and General Motors, among others.

In development meetings so far, the networks have focused on touting concepts, stars and showrunners rather than specific shows. The final fall lineups roll out with the upfront presentations in May.

But for buyers, the holy grail, as always, is quality.

It’s a simple equation: “If you put good stuff out there, people will watch and advertisers will buy,” says David Campanelli, vice president and director of national television for Horizon Media.

Buyers have learned to live with the fact that 75% of all network shows fail, but now they have options they’ve never had before. The challenge to the networks is no longer just to find good shows, but to stave off the encroachment of other distribution platforms.

“While overall television viewing remains stable, the broadcast networks’ share of the pie continues to shrink,” writes Steve Sternberg, exec VP of audience analysis for media buyer Magna, in his agency’s latest Primetime Update. “Ad-supported cable has picked up virtually all of the defecting broadcast viewers.”

Indeed, cablers such as TNT — whose hit procedural “The Closer” draws almost 7 million viewers a week — now garner networklike ratings.

“You’ve got to give the folks at Turner credit,” says Michael Kassan, founder and CEO of media consultancy Media Link. “They’ve created some of the best TV, with edgier content. That’s the real future.”

“From an artistic storytelling point of view, I think the product is better than ever,” adds Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer for Group M North America, whose clients include American Express, Unilever and AT&T. “It’s the environment that’s changed so radically. In the ’70s and ’80s, you’d see shows that got on the air and you’d say, ‘What the hell are they thinking?’ You see less of that now. But we’re in a 100-channel environment, and that’s what’s driving viewing changes.”

And giving buyers new leverage. For one thing, the networks are welcoming product integration — now a $25 billion business — into their shows. In at least one case, they’re partnering directly with advertisers in program development.

The Assn. of Natl. Advertisers’ Alliance for Family Television includes nearly 40 major advertisers and underwrites script development, gives scholarships to young screenwriters and works with the heads of every major network.

The alliance has brought more than 20 programs to air in its 11 years, including acclaimed hits such as “Gilmore Girls,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Chuck.” It now also actively supports family content on cable and the Internet.

When it began in 1998, the group was responding to “a dearth of programming of good quality,” explains Pat Gentile, Alliance chairman and g.m. of Procter & Gamble Prods. “It’s no different today. Research tells us over and over that families want to watch together — and, if anything, the economy is going to push people that way (even more).”

In fact, buyers report that finding a successful new family comedy is a major mission for network television in 2009-10.

“There is a passion for comedies and lighthearted fare, especially in these times,” agrees Ed Gentner, senior VP and director of video investment and activation at MediaVest USA, whose clients include P&G, Kraft and Coca-Cola.

Broadcasters are no longer trying to be everything to everybody, concentrating instead on what they do best. CBS, as Sternberg notes, “is a procedural drama machine.” ABC continues to cultivate women, NBC is looking to regain some momentum in scripted fare, and Fox is male-friendly. For the CW, it’s all about the buzz that draws young female viewers, and buyers say the buzz is back.

A big question mark remains regarding NBC’s decision to give Jay Leno the last hour of primetime during the week. Some believe it’s a smart idea for the Peacock while others think NBC’s rivals and cablers will draw new drama lovers looking for their 10 p.m. fix.

It will, of course, come down to the viewers.

“My wife is a 10 o’clock junkie,” notes Media Link’s Kassan. “She watches regardless of what’s on. So maybe Leno will work.”

In any event, this season will see more advertiser involvement in network television than ever before, and more scripted challenges from cable. Will that mean more quality?

“The thing we can do is not only support shows with script development but with our dollars,” Gentile concludes. “That’s how we speak.”

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