Cash up in the air at upfronts

Nets chase loose change in wake of weblets' merger

Who’s gonna get all that leftover weblet cash?

That’s one of the big questions net execs are asking as the annual advertiser upfronts ritual fast approaches.

With the CW rising from the ashes of the WB and UPN, one fewer broadcast net will be selling primetime spots. That means there’s a chunk of money — at least $300 million — up for grabs.

And it’s anyone’s guess where those dollars land.

“Does the rest of the money shift to the Internet?” asks one exec involved with the upstart CW. “Does some of it go to cable or the other broadcast networks? It’s going to be fun to keep an eye on — that’s where the dogfight is going to be.”

One thing’s for certain: No one expects the CW to book anywhere close to the combined $1.05 billion that the WB and UPN billed last year.

For one thing, the combined network will have fewer programming hours to sell, and while it will cherry-pick the best shows, even inside the net few believe “Gilmore Girls” will draw a higher number just because one weblet has left the dial.

“The CW’s not going to get all of that,” the CW-related exec admits. “But it should get at least as much as the WB did last year ($675 million).”

The networks’ glitzy upfront presentations — held mid-May in New York — are typically pro-forma exercises geared to gin up excitement on Madison Avenue for fall schedules that, with few exceptions, start changing by the second week of the season.

But the CW question, combined with uncertainty swirling around the brave new media world, should make for a livelier-than-usual upfront season.

The disappearance of one network reduces programming and ad inventory by 10 hours. Marketers looking for the young demos displaced by the demise of the WB and UPN could make bets on where the aud goes, or just use the opportunity to move money to MySpace.com and other online venues.

The broadcast nets could be on the prowl for some of that money — but with Fox’s median age inching up toward 40 and NBC’s climbing toward 50, there may be fewer options on broadcast for marketers looking for the 18-34 demo.

That could help cable nets like MTV, BET, or even Univision. The extra dollars could also help make up for shortfalls throughout the industry.

“It might mask a little bit some of the trouble that basic cable is having in raising rates,” says one top-level TV exec handicapping the upfronts. “It may also mask what could have been a bigger dropoff at NBC, and perhaps help make the Internet space even more successful. Honestly, the money probably gets spread across everything.”

Also an uncertain factor: News Corp.’s My Network TV, which is replacing UPN in primetime on Fox-owned stations in major markets. Insiders believe media buyers plan to treat My Network TV as a syndication service, rather than paying broadcast network-style ad rates.

My Network TV has managed to sign some strong stations in small markets, leaving the CW with weaker distribution than CBS and Warner Bros. expected when it conceived the merger.

Although predictions place the CW in the mid-$700 million range for its first upfront, agencies don’t have detailed audience estimates for the CW because no one is certain which shows will be retained and where they will fall on the schedule.

Interpublic’s Magna Global estimates that in terms of audience, the CW will gain between 15% and 20% more viewers than the WB alone thanks to stronger shows and better audience flow due to fewer bombs on the schedule.

“The positive for the CW is that there aren’t that many options out there for young audiences in broadcast television,” says Scott Haugenes, senior VP of National Broadcast at Initiative Media.

The CW will benefit from the fact that there is very little audience duplication between UPN and the WB. “They are both going after 18- to 34-year-olds but very different 18- to 34-year-olds,” says Scott Sternberg, Magna’s senior veep of audience analysis.

Meanwhile, in projecting ratings for next season, execs at Fox believe as much as a full ratings point of adults 18-34 and adults 18-49 will be left on the table.

“We think we have the ability to pick up a couple tenths of a ratings point next year,” says Preston Beckman, Fox’s exec VP of strategic program planning. “We believe that of the four big networks, the likelihood is many of those disenfranchised WB and UPN viewers will choose Fox as their second choice.”

In a tight ratings race, Beckman says those extra viewers could make a big difference in the net’s Nielsen standings.

“Things are so close that a two-tenths swing for us could be large,” Beckman says.

Beckman also expects to benefit from perplexed viewers looking for their fave WB and UPN shows. “For half of the audience at every half-hour, their show is now on a new channel, which causes confusion,” he says.

Most likely those leftover viewers will be splintered across the dial, depending on the competition each night. For example, if the CW keeps UPN’s urban comedy block on Monday, the WB’s young female aud for “Everwood” could be in play elsewhere.

“There’s not a lot of compatibility between the two networks,” Beckman says. “It’s not like they’re combining shows into ‘Everybody Hates the Gilmore Girls’ or ‘America’s Next Top Smallville.’ Whatever they choose to do, if they keep Smackdown’ on Friday, then a lot of young women are thrown up in the air.”