Analysts see signs for ad rebound

TV in particular predicted to have better results next year

NEW YORK -- U.S. advertising trends continue to improve, which should make for better results next year, particularly in TV, according to prognosticators and executives at a UBS media conference.

Still, with expectations of a slow economic recovery, forecasters said overall U.S. ad spending will see slight growth at best next year amid ongoing sluggishness in print and other areas.

Many media executives here also cited a continuing lack of visibility in ad sales while expressing confidence in better results for their TV businesses thanks to a rebound in auto ad spending, the midterm elections and generally improving local-station sales.

"Clearly life is so much better today for us than it was a year ago," CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves said Tuesday during the annual UBS Global Media & Communications Conference. "There is definite light at the end of the tunnel. There are actually some plus signs at the end of the tunnel."

"I don't want be too exuberant," he cautioned, later adding that "we are not back yet." But, "We're looking forward to '10 with great excitement."

Asked by reporters afterward about his expectations for the 2010 upfront, Moonves said that though it is early, he would be "surprised if the result is not a plus sign" compared with the 2009 upfront.

Every CBS Corp. unit is "in far, far better shape" these days, he added.

"The network is doing extremely well," with CBS scatter-market ad sales up 25% during the fourth quarter over the upfront, Moonves said. "We haven't seen such numbers in years."

The first quarter also looks "very strong," he said, adding that the Super Bowl is 90% sold out, with only five or six ad spots remaining.

As part of a UBS tradition, ad prognosticators shared their 2009 estimates and outlooks for next year. One noticeable thing: They didn't agree on when the U.S. ad market will rebound.

GroupM expects U.S. ad spending to fall 8% this year and 4.3% next, compared with a worldwide decline of 6.6% followed by a 0.8% gain in 2010.

Magna Global projects a 15.3% decline in the U.S. for this year, followed by a 0.2% gain next year driven by increases in Internet ads and a 5.6% improvement in TV ads.

UBS is most optimistic, forecasting 3.1% U.S. ad growth next year after a 12.3% decline this year.

The different forecasts are because of differences in methodology, but experts said it remains hard to read ad trends too far in advance.

Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav told the UBS audience Tuesday that the scatter market is "strong, and it's getting stronger." In fact, it has strengthened week to week during the current fourth quarter.

"We are really encouraged," he said. "On the other hand, advertisers really continue to be hesitant to commit longer-term. Visibility remains limited."

If positive trends continue as he hopes, things will be good, but the recovery also could come to a sudden end, Zaslav said.