Economy won't deflate Upfront Week

Networks say presentations will be similar to last year's

NEW YORK -- The economy might be bad and the TV industry may have seen better days, but Upfront Week is shaping up to be no less of an event than it was last year.

Upfront Week doesn't come until May, but CBS confirmed Thursday that it was going ahead with its traditional Carnegie Hall presentation. Immediately after last year's event -- which was scaled back from previous years and yet received strong reviews from the buying community -- CBS had put down a deposit to reserve the space. It has among the ad community become an iconic place for the Tiffany network, at least for a day.

"(It's) as you know our favorite venue and is our house," CBS network sales president JoAnn Ross said.

For CBS, the hour or so presentation on May 20 will do the traditional work of the upfront, giving advertisers a look at programming. A full-length development cycle, unlike last year's strike-addled season, will guarantee that CBS and the other networks will have something to show. CBS also has the benefit of having a stronger season than the rest of the networks.

CBS will also give advertisers a look at its other resources, from radio to publishing to out-of-home. "It's when we have our most important clients in one place, so it's always important to talk about CBS Corp. assets," Ross said. There will also be a party.

Ross acknowledged the down economy but said that had little to do with whether CBS rented Carnegie Hall. "We have a lot to tell, we have a great story and we're positioned really well."

The upfronts brought in $9.2 billion for primetime last year, up slightly from 2007.

Another network with a good story to tell is Fox. It had the most traditional upfront last year, with a City Center presentation and a party at the Wolman Ice Rink in Central Park. Its venues for 2009 are uncertain, but Fox is changing days. For years it has closed out Upfront Week on a Thursday, but because of the Memorial Day weekend, it's a better bet to start the week (on May 18) than to end it.

Both ABC and the CW are still working on their plans and said it was too early to discuss specifics. The CW will have its presentation at Madison Square Garden Theatre on May 21. ABC's is likely to be May 19 at Lincoln Center.

Advertisers and ad agencies are just fine with the upfront new world order, with less glitz and more businesslike presentations.

"They're going to be very similar to last year," said Chris Boothe, president/chief activation officer at Starcom USA. Boothe said the networks have changed the way they do business, having a lot more incremental meetings before the upfront presentations to address individual clients' needs.

"There are a lot of events throughout the year from various vendors, and I think you will start to see them maximize those events to leverage upcoming programs and sponsorships," Boothe said.

Turner Entertainment will stick with last year's playbook and hold another upfront presentation during that week. Turner was the highest-profile cable company to crash Upfront Week, part of its effort to show buyers and advertisers that they are now up to broadcast's reach.

A Turner executive said the company would hold an upfront much like last year's, where there were stars and plenty of information (and tape) of programming. But in May, like last year's event at the Hammerstein Ballroom near Penn Station, there would be no top-flight musical act. Previous years have seen Turner hire Sting and the Eagles.

The wild card is NBC, which last year scrapped its big upfront presentation at Radio City Music Hall in favor of a low-key, low-tape "in-front" chat with advertisers in early April. The network will do that again this year, the company confirmed. But what won't happen again is the "NBC Experience," a kind of country fair saluting NBC Universal that got a rocky reception from advertisers.

NBC is broadcasting the Super Bowl on Sunday and using the opportunity to make its case with advertisers and not just agency people. One buyer said that in previous years, the network would invite ad buyers and clients to big-time sporting events but would rarely talk business.

"They would never show you programming," the buyer said. "I think the NBC plan is smart because they have a larger percentage of clients at the Super Bowl than they would at the upfront."