Upfront advertising sales heat up; CBS nearing finish line

Upfront advertising sales heat up; CBS nearing finish line
CBS is close to finishing its spring advertising sales. Above, Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar -- stars of the upcoming CBS sitcom "The Crazy Ones" -- at the CBS upfront presentation party in New York. (Ben Gabbe / Getty Images)

The broadcast television advertising market is in full swing, with the top-rated CBS network once again leading the pack.

By Friday afternoon, CBS was close to finishing its advance advertising sales for the 2013-14 television season, notching rate increases of 6% to 7.5%, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

CBS is expected to wrap the annual auction with $2.5 billion in commitments for prime-time commercials. A year ago, CBS finished the auction with higher rate increases -- ranging from 8% to 10% -- for a total haul of $2.6 billion.

The lower volume suggests CBS did not sell as much inventory as last year, perhaps preferring to hold on to spots to sell through the season, when prices generally are higher than the upfront rates. The TV ad market is called the upfront because the broadcasters typically sell three-quarters of their commercial inventory for the coming season "upfront," or in advance of the season.

However, it will be tough for the broadcast industry to match last year's performance: A year ago, the five major English-language broadcast networks took in slightly more than $9 billion in commitments for prime-time commercials.

Fox in particular stumbled in the ratings for the season that just ended, compromising the News Corp. network's sales pitch this time around. Ratings for "American Idol" fell nearly 20%. Nonetheless, Fox is more than halfway through its spring advertising sales, commanding rate increases of 5% to 6%, according to knowledgeable people.

NBC also has kicked off its ad sales, but the peacock network is trying a new approach this year by selling bundles of time on NBC and the cable channels also owned by Comcast Corp., which has complicated the process.

CBS, which ended the 2012-13 season in first place in total viewers and the important demographic of viewers aged 18 to 49, was expected to establish a ceiling on prices in the market.  CBS boasts the industry's most stable prime-time schedule, and it had fewer holes to fill.

NBC and ABC are expected to negotiate lower rate hikes and lower dollar totals than CBS.  CBS began selling its advertising time Tuesday.  The network's swift sales pace was first reported by Variety.

CW became the first network to wrap up its sales. The network -- owned by CBS and Warner Bros. -- finished Wednesday, collecting orders totaling slightly more than $410 million.