Upfront 2005: A Buyer’s Season Rather than a Seller’s

By Apr 30, 2005

If you’re trying to buy television airtime in the “upfront” sales market this month, you could be in luck. Media buyers at a New York conference predicted that a weak “scatter” market combined with the uncertain economy and mounting pressure among marketers to move ad dollars online will lead to a weak pricing season for broadcasters.

Not surprisingly given the traditional posturing that surrounds the upfront, the TV executives were a bit more bullish than the ad buyers. Still, no one expects a banner year.

“The dollars are going to be relatively flat; it’s pretty much a share game at the moment,” said Charlie Rutman, the recently named CEO of Havas’s Media Planning Group, who was speaking at MediaLife Publications’ Outfront Conference last week.

But ABC’s president of sales, Mike Shaw, said he expects to have a good upfront, an easy statement to make for a network that is up by 16% among adults 18-49.

Buyers also said that they expected to see fewer shifts in media dollars from broadcast to cable television than they had during the past few years because primetime network ratings are basically flat rather than in decline, largely due to several breakout hits including ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”

Otherwise the panelists at the conference agreed that advertisers had become much more forceful in demanding proof of networks that their dollars were actually working—in other words, advertisers want to see a measurable ROI. “We’re having amazing conversations with clients,” said Charlie Collier, executive vice president of ad sales for Court TV, adding that it was no longer enough to show how cable can help marketers in terms of reach and frequency targets. “We’re going to try to show you it works.”

It wouldn’t be the upfront season if buyers didn’t complain that the entire process should be overhauled because it was archaic, expensive, tiring, and unnecessary. But this year several of them acknowledged mounting pressures to move more of their dollars out of traditional media markets and into new media. The shift is happening, they said, but slowly.

“No marketer can take a jolt to the system,” said Havas’s Rutman. “Can McDonald’s afford to risk half their money and move it out of TV and put it online? I don’t think they’d feel confident. We kind of have to digest these things in bite-size pieces.”