This year's upfronts downsized

Why some broadcasters tightened their belts for presentations and parties

Judging by what's in store for TV buyers next week, the over-the-top upfront is on its way out.

Several broadcast networks have scaled back plans for the annual dog-and-pony shows in which primetime lineups are unveiled for Madison Avenue.

Most notably, NBC is abandoning the big-tent approach altogether, raising the question of whether the traditional upfront ritual has outlived its effectiveness.

"They got to be epic events that transcended what they were originally intended for," says John Miller, executive vp marketing at NBC.

The upfronts are shrinking in part because of corporate belt-tightening brought on by the looming recession. And then there are the lingering effects of the WGA strike, which will return many of 2007-08's programs to the schedule and limit the networks' ability to show clips of pilots or greenlighted programs that haven't started production.

The upfronts also have felt less special in recent years with the explosion of cable channels, from big fish like Turner Broadcasting to smaller fry like WGN, that have held presentations of their own going back to February.

"Starting about five years ago, we went from three or four upfronts to 15 or 30," longtime Madison Avenue buyer Gene DeWitt says. "That's absolutely nuts."

In addition, the excesses of presentations in recent years turned off many a buyer. As one veteran buyer notes, "After sitting through them all for years, I would have just preferred you hand me a DVD and given me a synopsis."

The broadcast networks already started to rein themselves in at last year's upfronts, when none of the networks broke an hour for the presentations. Fox, which was heavily criticized for an overlong presentation in 2006, held the quickest of the bunch.

But the changes are being felt full force this year.

CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves surprised many in the industry this year when he canceled the jumbo-shrimp party at Tavern on the Green. "It's going to be a very different look than we've ever had before," Moonves told investors in March.

The CW, which is jointly run by CBS Corp. and Time Warner, canceled this year's presentation at Madison Square Garden. Instead, the network plans a party that will incorporate a small presentation.

There won't be the large number of ABC talent that had been there in previous years, and the Alphabet also is cutting back on the party it has held for several years at Lincoln Center.

Not everyone is downsizing, though. Fox still plans the traditional upfront presentation, which will be held at City Center, a few blocks south of Central Park, followed by a party at the Wollman Ice Rink in Central Park.

Fox executive vp Joe Earley says that upfront week still matters. "It's crucial to demonstrate the collective importance of network television," he says.

No network has altered its upfront more than the Peacock.

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker this year openly questioned the value of an upfront presentation and then canceled it altogether for the first time in the network's history. In early April, the network announced its schedule through summer 2009, the first time a network had ever unveiled so much so soon.

NBC held seven hourlong presentations in early April, meeting with ad buyers and select clients in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Top programming and sales executives laid out a yearlong schedule, talked strategy and in lieu of screen pilots offered advertisers the next seven or eight scripts of shows the Peacock was putting into production.

Execs then opened the forum to questions, which NBC's Miller says was invaluable to the network and the buyers.

"It was a far more useful experience than anything we've ever done before," he says. "Maybe not as entertaining as seeing the cast of 'Will & Grace' sing a custom musical number, but far more useful for the advertiser."

NBC still will lead off upfront week but is turning it into what is being called "The NBC Universal Experience," a four-hour fete that is half party and half multimedia event touting not just the conglomerate's broadcast network but also its cable properties, online opportunities and theme parks.

Despite the fact that some broadcast and cable networks are still doing the upfront

big -- Turner and ESPN plan sizable productions -- other cable brands are exploring the more intimate style NBC is adopting.

Lifetime usually holds a star-studded breakfast presentation but won't this year, instead going with smaller meetings between senior-level staff at the network and agencies.

Lifetime ad sales chief Debbie Richman, a former ad buyer, doesn't see a problem with either approach, though she said that smaller meetings can be more productive.

"If you really want to get into program development, if you want to get early into the process and you want to have a more intimate discussion and get a dialogue going, then you do a smaller meeting," she says.

It doesn't have to be an either-or strategy.

This year, Fox paired its big upfront presentation with smaller meetings in March and April with agency personnel given by their sales execs and programming chiefs. ABC similarly goes to agencies and big clients in the weeks and months ahead of the upfront to review the year's ratings and network performance.

But even as the upfronts scale down, a question looms: Is the cancellation of the bloated presentation just a temporary move?

Some media buyers believe that, like all TV trends, upfronts are cyclical, and the lavish presentations will be back before you know it. But others aren't so sure. They claim the bigtime upfront presentations are gone and never coming back. Better that advertisers leave the network's clutches a little more informed and a little less entertained than wondering why they spent all that time cooped up in their seats.

"The upfront presentation as a gala entertainment extravaganza has run its course," one buyer says flatly.