Upfront shows signs of moving

Networks could see ad sales drop by 20%

Media buyers and national TV sales executives have yet to clear the air on their pricing differences, but other atmospheric disturbances that have stalled the upfront marketplace are beginning to show signs of dissipating.

Call it the El Nino Upfront. As New York endures a wet, miserable early summer -- this will almost certainly stand as the rainiest June on record -- the annual television advertising bazaar has been bogged down by persistent low-pressure systems and cold fronts. Until late last week, that is, when the sun began to peek out from the clouds.

According to multiple sources, Interpublic's negotiating/buying arm Magna has registered a good chunk of its clients' budgets, while another major agency group has begun submitting specs. And though dealmaking remains consigned to an indeterminate future (the first upfront commitments are expected to line up sometime this week), the initial batch of budgets should give sellers a better sense of how the market will play out over the next several weeks.

"It's not enough of a sample to tell us how we stand, but we're going into this thing knowing that we're going to be down," said one ad sales chief, who, like nearly all execs reached for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity. "But we're not looking at a disaster. If we have to take it on the chin a little bit in the upfront, we'll make up for it in scatter."

Since broadcasters made their ritualized pitches to buyers a month ago, both sides have been at loggerheads on the pricing issue. "The networks are steadfast in their position that they're not going to write negatives, and the agencies are equally steadfast in their desire to go with deep negatives," one ad sales exec said. "As much as there have been some conversations in between the extremes, you're still looking at a serious gap."

If agencies went into the upfront talks looking for double-digit CPM rollbacks, buyers have tempered those demands somewhat, coming back to broadcasters with proposed decreases between 7% and 9% from last year's levels. Across the table, CBS, Fox and ABC are holding the line on positive CPMs (low-single digits).

Two years ago, NBC Universal and GroupM got the ball rolling with a $1 billion C3 deal and followed through in 2008 with an early cable package.

But it's not a given that NBC will kick-start the market this year. Case in point: NBC is positioning the new Jay Leno show as the centerpiece of primetime, but agencies aren't biting on its primetime CPM price tag -- an assessment NBC denies.

With demand down and budgets squeezed, many observers anticipate that the dollar total could be down as much as 20% in this upfront (pegging it at between $7 billion and $7.5 billion). Between those muted expectations, calls for more flexibility on cancellation options and the fact that there are no must-buys, it's little wonder that no one is in any rush to get the market started. "We need a lemming," one buyer cracked. "One of the networks has to jump off the cliff. Once that's out of the way, everything will progress in orderly fashion."
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