Better economic climate will likely boost total dollars

Network ad sales execs and media buyers are bracing for a frenzy of upfront buying and selling that is likely to hit by the end of next week.

The Big Four nets and CW are hopeful that the upfront market will rebound significantly from last year’s recession-depressed sales climate, when the broadcast nets booked about $8 billion in upfront commitments and the largest ad-supported cablers took in a little more than $7 billion. There are estimates that total dollars could rise as much as 8%-10% for the broadcasters and 15% or more for cablers.

Top network execs say they’ve spent the past few days gauging the appetite among key media buyers and waiting for formal budgets to be submitted. Some budgets have been submitted, but most are expected to hit early next week, after which the real wheeling and dealing begins.

The annual ritual of booking TV advertising deals for the coming season is expected to return to a more intense and fast-paced process this time around after a few down years. Last year, the repercussions of the economic meltdown kept upfront dealings from getting under way in earnest until mid-July, nearly two months after the major nets made their programming presentations to Madison Avenue.

In flush times, the bulk of the major nets’ upfront sales tend to be booked in a three- to five-day marathon of negotiations between buyers and sellers, usually right after the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The major broadcasters and cablers typically book advance commitments for 75%-85% of their ad inventory for the coming season during the late spring sales.

This year, the steady recovery of the TV ad market during the past few months has stoked demand among top-tier national advertisers, which is a welcome change from last year for the nets. As demand for blurbs has increased in the past few months, prices have skyrocketed in the short-term scatter sales market to as much as 25%-30% more than advertisers paid in last year’s upfront. A strong scatter market generally drives more dollars into the upfront because prices for spots booked in advance are predetermined, rather than fluctuating according to demand, and backed by ratings guarantees.

Because demand is so strong, media buyers will face additional pressure to ensure that they deliver the right spots in the right shows for their clients, which also bodes well for strong upfront biz. In recent years, there’s been speculation that the biz would move away from the upfront process toward a 24/7 auction-style business conducted largely online. But so far, none of the major players has taken any concrete steps toward such a change.

On the sales side, there’s great hope that this year will also mark the return of more ambitious sponsorship and branded entertainment deals. Those initiatives took a back seat in last year’s upfront as most marketers slashed their spending.

Upfront dealmaking is mostly about tonnage — large packages of spots sold across a network’s sked — but as always some primetime newbies will generate more heat than others. CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0″ remake has strong buzz as good popcorn fare, plus it has advantageous skedding in the 10 p.m. Monday slot coming out of the Eye’s strong comedy block. ABC’s cop drama “Detroit 1-8-7″ is similarly situated on Tuesday, coming out of the 9 p.m. “Dancing With the Stars” results show.

Other frosh hopefuls with heat among buyers are said to be NBC’s “Undercovers” and “Chase”; Fox’s “Lonestar” and “Running Wilde”; and CW’s “Nikita.”

On the cable side, USA Network and Turner’s TNT/TBS will undoubtedly drive the market. USA is riding high on the success of its originals, including “Burn Notice,” “In Plain Sight” and “White Collar.” TBS and TNT are counting on generating premium prices for both cablers’ vast expansion of original programming, including TBS’ investment in latenight with Conan O’Brien.

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