Can strong lineups trump tough times?

Advertisers may not put all their money in the upfront

In a soft market, nets have rolled out strong schedules.

Despite the troubled economy, most advertisers are not drastically cutting their national TV ad budgets for next season, a signal that might bode well for the broadcast networks -- if they don't take hard-line positions regarding rate increases.

Although many analysts project this primetime broadcast network upfront revenue haul could decline by 20% or more compared with last year, most media buyers said the slippage might fall in the 5%-8% range. Even if the money is not allocated in the upfront, they added, it will get spent in the scatter market. Last year's upfront take floated around $9 billion, and most buyers said this year's total will fall between $8.2 billion and $8.5 billion.

"Advertisers and agencies are lying if they say they don't have a lot of money to spend in," said one media buyer. "Ad budgets for TV will be close to last year. We just won't spend it all in the upfront unless we get the right pricing."

Right now, ABC, CBS and Fox are seeking price hikes similar to last year's levels -- between 7% and 10%. Buyers flatly refuse to consider hikes and say they will do business at flat-to-negative CPMs compared with last year.

"If the networks refuse to budge, we'll hold the ad dollars and spend them in scatter," one buyer said. "The networks have to understand there are no must-buy shows anymore and that by waiting for the scatter market, no advertiser is going to get shut out of a show."

The same buyer said even Fox's ratings juggernaut "American Idol" is no longer a mandatory upfront buy. " 'Idol' is very high-priced, so it's not for every advertiser," the buyer said. "Even if an advertiser comes in during the season and 'Idol' is sold out, if enough money is on the table, you can bet that Fox will add an hour or two to the schedule. They have that flexibility."

Ironically, the broadcasters face a steep uphill battle on pricing in a year when buyers give them high marks for offering one of their best programming development season in decades.

Larry Novenstern, exec vp and director of electronic media at Optimedia, said: "Anyone who thinks the golden age of television was in the 1950s is wrong. The writing, acting and creativity is at its best right now."

He wasn't alone in his praise. While most buyers did not want to speak for attribution about particular shows, they generally liked what they saw.

Buyers were particularly pleased with shows from NBC and the CW, the two lowest-rated networks. Several said that for the first time in many years, NBC has some new scripted shows -- the midseason nurse drama "Mercy," the family drama "Parenthood" and the sitcom "Community" -- they think can become long-term additions to NBC's schedule.

Likewise, the CW's acceptance of focusing on women 18-34 while offering a Monday-Friday lineup impressed buyers. Helping its case are such new shows as "The Vampire Diaries" (which offers a similar vibe to longtime WB Network hit "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer") and "Parental Discretion Advised" (which feels reminiscent of the WB hit "Gilmore Girls").

Dawn Ostroff, the CW's entertainment president, said the network is more than just a traditional TV buy because of the different way young women watch it. The CW recently conducted a live survey in 10 major markets to see how women view its shows. As they watched, women commented on characters' clothing or the music being played. Ostroff said the network plans to mine that value with advertisers because it represents an opportunity to go beyond just selling TV spots.

ABC received high marks from buyers for offering eight new scripted shows on its fall schedule, the most of any of the networks. The network plans to roll out an 8-10 p.m. block of comedies, which buyers generally cited as bold but risky should they not perform well. ABC ad sales president Mike Shaw touted the network's upscale audience.

Buyers also praised Fox for moving its summer reality show "So You Think You Can Dance" to an additional twice-a-week fall cycle, citing its ability to draw family viewing in a safe environment.

CBS, which has the steadiest schedule going into the fall, got mixed reviews from buyers. On the negative, some shows look a little generic ("Accidentally on Purpose"), but on the positive, the fall lineup has strong flow.

While all indications are that this upfront will drag well into the summer some buyers said that's not a given despite how far off both sides seem to be on pricing right now. "All it takes is one major agency to do one deal that everyone else looks at as defining the market, and things will move quickly," one buyer said.

But it would have to be a deal that makes sense.

The nets each have differing levels of leverage going into negotiations.

Concluded one buyer: "NBC's in a good position to make some friends among the buying community by offering low pricing in exchange for volume buying, just to get advertisers in the tent. But that doesn't mean the other nets are going to follow that lead."