Robust TV ad market expected through 2010

Political, football buyers give pricing a 20% boost

Despite troubling indicators that suggest the economic recovery might have lost forward momentum, media buyers and network executives are confident that the TV advertising marketplace will remain robust through year's end. After that, it's anyone's guess.

In the waning hours of an upfront that saw clients commit to about $18 million in national broadcast and cable inventory, buyers had intimated that scatter would begin to dry up during the third and fourth quarters. This has not been the case, however, as pricing continues to come in at about 20% above upfront levels.

Buyers and sellers have begun the process of converting holds to orders, and though time remains, early indications seem to support the notion that there won't be an inordinate amount of breakage.

"So far, just about everything seems to be holding up," one national TV buyer said. "If I had to put a number on it, I'd say maybe 5% won't stick. But that's par for the course."

On the broadcast side of the ledger, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW are facing another arduous autumn battle as cable continues to make raids on primetime and younger viewers are lured from the tube by the digital pied piper. Last season, only Fox managed to grow its share of adults 18-49; in the aggregate, cable now enjoys a 2-to-1 lead in share.

"If ratings tank in primetime, then the money will run out of broadcast like gangbusters," one ad-sales chief said. "So say the shows don't perform and the economy gets really hairy. Then you'll have a situation where clients are going to want to move their money into 'out' quarters -- in other words, Q1 and Q2, the quarters where they can actually take options."

In the meantime, Joel Hollander, founder of 264 Echo Place Partners, said sports and politics alone should keep the networks humming through December.

"Football is the closest thing there is to bulletproof," said Hollander, former chairman and CEO of CBS Network Radio and GM of New York sports-radio leader WFAN-AM. "There's going to be a ton of political money starting now, and it'll all just pile up as November approaches."

How robust is the football marketplace? With a little less than two weeks to go before kicking off its 51st season of NFL coverage, CBS' Sunday broadcasts are about 90% sold through the playoffs. At the same time, the network is close to selling off the last piece of its SEC college schedule.

"At this time last year, we were going into the season with a lot of inventory on our hands," CBS Sports executive vp sales and marketing John Bogusz said. "This year, the market has moved earlier, and volume is way up."

Automotive dollars had a big hand in the rush on NFL avails.

"Last year, we knew Chrysler wasn't coming in; Toyota wasn't on CBS; and we weren't sure where we stood with GM, although they eventually did come in for a fair amount," Bogusz said. "All three are already back this season, as is Ford, which has always been a consistent spender."

Telecom also has been active at CBS, Fox and ESPN as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon have ramped up respective commitments to pro and college football. The insurance category has secured a good deal of airtime, and other endemics including beer, quick-service restaurants and movies also are spending freely.

All told, Bogusz said CBS is on track to sell a record amount of advertising for its NFL games, a projection shared by other pro football outlets.

After putting up record deliveries last season, ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is just about sold out. The sports network's college football games also are selling well, according to Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN customer marketing and sales. "Yes, the auto market returning has been a big deal, but there's also the fact that live events have become more crucial in the minds of the advertising community," he said.

ESPN's first preseason "MNF" telecast Aug. 16 drew 5.6 million viewers, 3.1 million of whom were in the adults 18-49 demographic. To put that in perspective, the exhibition game between the Giants and Jets outdelivered every regular-season baseball telecast this season on broadcast and cable.

Looking at the bigger picture, though clients might begin retreating if the economy takes another dive, the near term looks promising for TV.

"It's still the most cost-effective buy to support a brand, and brands are increasingly important as we go through these economic cycles," said Howard Bass, a senior partner at Ernst & Young. "The marketplace is relatively strong, and a big part of that is thanks to the sophistication and innovation of the agencies putting together the buys."
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