TV Upfronts: Inside the $9 Billion Ad Scramble (Analysis)

 

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

The TV industry likely will look back on the 2013 upfront -- the annual selling season when networks unload as much as 80 percent of their ad inventory for the new season -- as another year of slow growth and dwindling dominance. With all the networks down year-over-year, and cable and digital rivals siphoning dollars and buzz, most analysts predict only moderate increases from the $9.25 billion broadcast networks booked in 2012 (compared with cable's $9.8 billion). "The networks aren't dead," says Gary Carr, senior vp/director of national broadcast at TargetCast. "They still have many of the big events --sports, the Oscars -- but they're being pecked away at."

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CBS

Where it stands: The network sits in first place, but it's down 3 percent year-over-year in the key adults 18-to-49 demographic and suffered a few embarrassing freshman misfires in Partners and Vegas. Still, CBS will finish the season in first place in the coveted demo for the first time in more than 20 years. In 2012, CBS booked $2.65 billion in upfront commitments, a bigger haul than any other network. And CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves is predicting CPM (cost per thousand viewers) increases in the "high-single to low-double-digit" range. But he likely won't get them.

New shows: With How I Met Your Mother signing off after its upcoming ninth season and an aging Two and a Half Men, comedy remains the top priority for CBS. Nina Tassler's network already has more than doubled its comedy orders compared with 2012, with such hot new entries as Chuck Lorre's Anna Faris starrer Mom and Greg Garcia's Will Arnett vehicle The Millers. Included in the mix is a couple of single-camera entries (Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams, and We Are Men), a planned departure for the network that's had the most success on the cost-effective multicam track.

Surprise move: The network opted against the high-profile Shawn Ryan-Eddie Murphy drama Beverly Hills Cop despite big names and built-in brand awareness.

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Fox

Where it stands: The network's fortunes have for a decade been lifted by American Idol. Not so this year. A lackluster fall that seeded only one returning show (moderately rated The Mindy Project) has been exacerbated by double-digit declines at Idol (as well as The X Factor, New Girl and Glee). "Idol was a huge show for years," notes TargetCast's Carr. "With lower ratings, it's certainly going to spread a lot of the money around." At least the Kevin Bacon serial killer drama The Following is TV's top drama among men 18-to-34, an elusive and desirable demographic for media buyers. The network also has the biggest TV event of the coming season: Super Bowl XLVIII.

New shows: After mixed results for a female-driven comedy push (Mindy and the canceled Ben and Kate), Fox is going decidedly male with the Andy Samberg-headlined Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the brother comedy Enlisted, Christopher Meloni's coming-of-age laugher Surviving Jack and Seth MacFarlane's Dads. The success of The Following has spurred chairman Kevin Reilly to take a chance on more serialized storytelling with Gang Related, Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human. Fox also has upped its orders from recent years (five comedies, four dramas), ensuring that it will have enough product to fill the inevitable schedule holes. With Bones showing its age, a new cult hit that can run multiple seasons remains high atop Fox's wish list for 2013-14.

Surprise move: Not six months after ratings-challenged Fringe wrapped, Fox ordered two more genre shows (Hollow, Human) from the series' producers.

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NBC

Where it stands: Last fall's rare first-place finish was followed by a prompt return to the ratings basement when The Voice and Sunday Night Football wrapped. "If you're scheduled 100 percent in football and The Voice, then great," quips Brett Whelan at Initiative. But he notes that Bob Greenblatt's network "is not an outlier either. Every network is struggling." NBC also has the 2014 Winter Olympics to buoy its ad-revenue picture, and its declines are not as steep as those at Fox and ABC. Some analysts even expect NBC to increase its share of the broadcast upfront haul. NBC booked $1.8 billion in primetime upfront commitments last season compared with $1.95 billion at Fox and $2.4 billion at ABC.

New shows: Entries include high-concept dramas from Rand Ravich (the action drama Crisis) and J.J. Abrams (the sci-fi cop show Believe). Both dramas are closer in tone to Revolution than Dick Wolf's by-the-numbers procedurals, though Chicago Fire was stable enough to warrant a post-Voice slot and a spinoff, giving the net the safety of three traditional procedurals. On the comedy side, not a single one of the seven half-hours ordered in May 2012 was granted a second season. Looking ahead, the network is eschewing quirkiness for known talents including Michael J. Fox (The Michael J. Fox Show), Sean Hayes (Sean Saves the World) and James Spader (The Blacklist). What's more, with Jay Leno's exit plan in place, the network will be able to peddle new late night team, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon and Late Night newcomer Seth Meyers, to deep pocketed advertisers.

Surprise move: Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Fallon can't have everything. The net pulled the plug on Fallon's Guys With Kids and passed on a comedy from Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney. (Lucky for Michaels, he'll have Saturday Night Live, Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers to his name beginning in early 2014.)

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ABC

Where it stands: ABC managed to launch only one new drama this season: the Connie Britton country musical Nashville. The rest -- 666 Park, Last Resort, Red Widow and Zero Hour -- are distant memories. Meanwhile, Dancing With the Stars has gone from schedule linchpin to long in the tooth, declining 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively, for its Monday and Tuesday iterations. And while Modern Family still is TV's No. 2 comedy (behind CBS' The Big Bang Theory), ABC again failed to establish a second night of comedy on Tuesdays. With Scandal proving a sophomore hit, and Revenge, Once Upon a Time and Grey's Anatomy relatively steady, media buyers are looking for another breakout comedy.

New shows: Paul Lee's network will make another play for more male viewers with Joss Whedon's family-friendly Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and sci-fi effort Resurrection, which centers on a community where the dead mysteriously come back to life. Beyond that, ABC will stick to its Disney roots with the spinoff Once Upon a Time in Wonderland and stay the soapy course with British import Lucky 7. On the comedy side, the net will once again look to Modern Family to try to grow another hit, something ABC has struggled to do in recent years.  

Surprise move: Despite internal fans and corporate synergy, the show based on Disney's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride got the shaft.

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The CW

Where it stands: This will be the third season the network has offered a fully integrated broadcast/online media buy. Still, in linear television viewing, it is down 8 percent this season among its target 18-to-34 audience, though it has added total viewers and men 18-to-34 thanks to Arrow. "We're plugging away under the radar, and that's the best way to do it," says CW president Mark Pedowitz. "Compared to prior CW seasons, this season has actually been very stabilizing."

New shows: The network is veering slightly off-brand with the period drama Reign, but CW's core viewers will recognize familiar themes in Julie Plec's Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals and the Plec/Greg Berlanti reboot The Tomorrow People. "The complaint last year was that we didn't have any men," adds Pedowitz. "Arrow and Supernatural brought men back."

Surprise move: The Selection became the rare pilot to be passed over two years in a row. Quite a feat.

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