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Networks wrap solid TV upfronts

Advertising sales defy gloomy forecasts

Much to the delight of Hollywood’s major congloms, fears of a weak national economy fueling a big downturn in TV advertising spending appear to have been exaggerated.

Fox, ABC and CBS have all but wrapped up their dealmaking on advance advertising commitments for the 2008-09 season, with each net generating rate and overall revenue increases.

With NBC and CW already completing their upfront biz last week, it appears that upfront sales for the five broadcasters will be close to the $9 billion they banked last year. It’s not the go-go days of double-digit rate increases the nets enjoyed in the 1990s, but it’s not the bloodbath of a 10%-14% decline that some biz watchers were predicting, either (Daily Variety, May 9).

Top-rated Fox led the pack in cost-per-thousand gains of about 9%-10%, pushing its take up to $2 billion for the first time in its 21-year history, compared with around $1.8 billion last year. (Fox, which programs 15 hours a week, has less primetime inventory to sell than its Big Three rivals.)

Fox, buoyed by the heft of “American Idol” to a commanding win of the 2007-08 season, said in a statement Monday that it had completed its “upfront sales at volume and pricing levels consistent with the No. 1 network,” but declined further comment. It was unclear how much of its inventory Fox booked in the upfront and how much it opted to hold back for scatter market sales during the regular season.

ABC and CBS were said to be closing in on $2.5 billion in sales, up from $2.4 billion last year. ABC enjoyed 8%-10% rate increases on the bench strength of its sked, stocked with returning hits like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

Mike Shaw, ABC’s prexy of ad sales and marketing, said the network was happy to see that the more recent economic shakiness did not prompt advertisers in key categories such as retail, automotive and pharmaceuticals to cut ad spending.

“Those dollars came in much like we anticipated they would,” Shaw said. “When times are tough and each marketing dollar has to work as hard as it can, (advertisers) absolutely go to what works. Television absolutely benefited from that.”

Because the demand was strong, ABC sold slightly more inventory in the upfront this year than in years past, between 80% and 85%. NBC also went up this year to 80% upfront sellout, which helped boost its upfront take to nearly $1.9 billion even after a tough season for the Peacock.

CBS was said to have sold about the same level of inventory as in recent years, or 75%-80%. CBS rate increases were in the 7%-9% range, insiders said.

Once it became clear the upfront market would be healthy, the overall wheeling and dealing went a little more smoothly than in recent years, Shaw said.

During the past two upfront selling seasons ad buyers and sellers were grappling with questions of how to factor in DVR viewing into program ratings, and last year’s shift to commercial ratings as the basis for ad guarantees rather than program ratings.

“It was uncomplicated (this year) versus the last few years, where you had significant issues on the table between advertisers and networks,” Shaw said.

The so-called C-3 commercial ratings measure viewership during commercial breaks, and they incorporate viewing that is done via DVR playback up to three days after the initial telecast. Prior to last year, most advertisers balked at basing ad guarantees on anything but live viewing.

The compromise reached last year allowed for the shift to commercial ratings, something advertisers had long sought, but with nets getting the cushion of a 72-hour window for additional viewing via DVRs.

Getting those extra three days has made a big difference in closing the gap in ratings for program time vs. commercial time, Shaw said. All in all, the shift to C-3 ratings has been uneventful during the past 12 months. Virtually all of ABC’s deals this year were based on C-3 ratings guarantees, Shaw said.

Now that broadcasters are leaving the field, Madison Avenue’s attention is turning to cable, which is expected to bring in $7.5 billion-$8 billion in upfront coin.

Turner’s TNT and TBS made an aggressive push to command buyers’ attention at the same time broadcasters were cutting deals, a departure from cable’s tradition of waiting until after the Big Four are finished. It appears the gambit has been mostly successful, although the cablers were not able to command the double-digit rate increases they initially sought.

A cable industry source said Monday that Turner is “50% done” with its negotiations, with rate increases in the 9%-10% range.

(Daniel Frankel contributed to this report.)

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