Fox wraps speedy, lucrative upfront

Sees CPM hikes of 8.5%-9%; Big 3 deal at less frenetic pace

Rendered in bold strokes by Fox, the contours of the 2010-11 broadcast upfront have begun to take shape.

Having wrapped its final piece of business Thursday, Fox's quick and lucrative dealmaking set the upper limit on pricing. At week's end, the CW also had completed most of its business, and ABC, CBS and NBC were cutting deals at a less frenetic pace as national TV buyers caught their breath.

Fox commanded CPM hikes of 8.5%-9% compared with last year's pricing, an improvement that contributed to an overall volume increase of about 20%. Fox is believed to have brought in $1.8 billion-$1.9 billion in primetime commitments, the second-most-lucrative upfront in its 24-year history. Fox moved about 80% of its inventory, in line with historical sell-through numbers. (Hampered by the recession, last year's bazaar was an anomaly; per analyst estimates, Fox sold 70% of its airtime then.)

Although Fox did not confirm any statistics, the network said Friday that it had completed its upfront business "at volume and pricing levels consistent with our position as the No. 1 network" among adults 18-49.

Fox entered the upfront with nothing but upside, having won the key TV demo for the sixth straight season on the broad back of its NFL schedule, the top-rated (but faltering) "American Idol" and hit scripted series like "Glee." Demand for NFL airtime by automakers was so pronounced that Jon Nesvig, president of sales at Fox Broadcasting, began selling spots on Super Bowl XLV in May. By week's end, he had sold off 80% of the network's Super Bowl avails, all but assuring a frenzied autumn rush for the remaining spots.

"If you're a client and you were hoping for an 'A' position in the Super Bowl, you're out of luck," one ad sales chief said. "Nesvig has the goods people need to have, and this gives him extraordinary leverage."

Media agencies late last week began deploying a stall, less in a bid to quash ABC, CBS and NBC's separate demands for higher CPMs than to take a step back and reassess the overall marketplace. The speed with which Fox sold off its upfront inventory seemed to put some buyers on their heels; by slowing the tempo, agencies carved out time to revise planning.

"Each client budget is informed by different complexities, certain proportions of primetime to daytime, broadcast to cable," one national TV buyer said. "We're going to do a lot of rejiggering and replanning over the weekend in order to shift some things around."

Which isn't to say that pricing isn't an issue.

CBS is pushing for CPM hikes on a par with those secured by Fox -- buyers suggested the net can punch its own ticket so long as it doesn't push hard on double-digit increases. Like Fox, CBS can afford to throw its weight around. During the just-ended broadcast season, CBS won another ratings crown, averaging 11.8 million viewers per night and tying Fox for first place among adults 25-54.

"CBS is moving, if a little methodically," one ad sales boss said. "They're not stalled or mired orin any way stunted. They're just getting things done -- just not at those 10s that (CBS Corp. president and CEO) Les (Moonves) was promising."

Earlier this spring, Moonves said the network would make the most of what promised to be a robust ad market, though once the deals started getting done, he refrained from issuing any further estimates.

"We're really in the midst of it right now," Moonves said Wednesday. "We've done a lot of deals this week and we're very pleased with that. The numbers are where we would like them to be."

Moonves added that should CBS get the pricing it desires, the network will move as much as 80% of its inventory.

ABC and NBC at the end of last week were a bit less further down the road than CBS, though both have done some deals. ABC is expected to write business at premiums of as much as 8.5% over last year's pricing, and buyers suggest NBC would be happy writing 7s.

Should ABC move at least 75% of its avails at an 8.5% premium, it would stand to take in $2.3 billion, lifting dollar volume by about 21%. NBC is much harder to suss out, as its negotiations are complicated by the value of cable sibling USA Network and its lineup of top-rated original drama series. At least one agency has indicated that it wants to tie up its USA deals before working through NBC, a sound strategy that would have a concomitant decelerating effect.

Along with Fox, the CW has closed out its upfront business, notching "tremendous year-to-year growth in all key categories, including health and beauty, retail, wireless and autos," exec VP national sales Rob Tuck said. The CW is estimated to have boosted volume by 20% when compared with last year, bringing in about $350 million. The vast majority of its sales were linear/digital-media hybrids.