Upfronts week: Lots of shrimp, lots of promises and lots of that Ke$ha song
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Four days and 4,000 shrimp later, it’s time to assess upfronts week.
For those unfamiliar with upfronts week, it’s when the broadcast networks unveil their fall schedules to advertisers. It’s called upfronts because the advertisements for the TV shows the networks are putting on in the fall are sold in advance or upfront. Last year, the broadcasters sold about $7.5 billion worth of commercial inventory in a down economy, and this year they hope to get that figure back up to the $9-billion range. It’s also when you get to hear whatever the hot song is 8 million times. This year, it was Ke$ha’s ‘Tik Tok’ that was pounded into everyone’s brain.
The truth is, it really is no longer upfronts week as much as it is upfronts season. Though the broadcast networks jam their presentations into four hellish days in May, cable networks hold upfronts throughout the spring. This year, Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN joined Turner Broadcasting in crashing the broadcast networks’ week. The message they want to send is simple: We spend just as much on big shows, and you advertisers should spend just as much with us as you do with them.
Turner Broadcasting, which includes TBS and TNT, certainly did a good job making its case for broadcast dollars for cable shows. Besides snagging Conan O’Brien, Turner has promising shows in the comedy ‘Glory Daze’ on TBS and the legal dramedy ‘Franklin & Bash’ on TNT. Turner Entertainment President Steve Koonin declared that the talent of Hollywood have ‘shifted to cable’ and so should advertisers. ‘The playing field has leveled,’ he said.
Company Town argued in this space not too long ago that in fact cable leveled the playing field a long time ago in terms of programming and business models. But when it comes to ad dollars, the cost-per-thousands, which is industry code for how much it costs an advertiser, are still higher on broadcast even if the audiences are similar in size. With the exception of major sporting events, most shows on broadcast TV still out perform cable.
Time Warner’s Turner has shelled out a lot of money lately. Besides what it’s paying O’Brien, it also is paying $10.8 billion for the NCAA for the next 14 years (please let someone else be around to write-up the deal that follows that one in 2024) and another $1.5 million per episode for reruns of ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ The cable networks need advertisers to cough up because they can’t just count on raising the subscriber fees they charge cable operators to carry their networks.
Turner is not the only one taking some big gambles. The boldest scheduling move goes to CBS, which is moving ‘Big Bang Theory’ from its Monday 9:30 p.m. home to Thursday at 8 p.m. When CBS unveiled its schedule to reporters Wednesday at its Black Rock headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, there were lots of oohs and ahs over the move.
Taking a hit out of its home is always a risk, but this one is kind of a no-brainer. There is no dominant show Thursdays at 8 p.m, and CBS has a chance to establish a base there that can attract a lot of money because advertisers -- particularly movie studios and car companies -- spend heavily there. If ‘Big Bang Theory’ works on Thursday, the question for CBS is what took you so long?
All the networks will have a lot of new shows to promote. This fall will be one of the most competitive in recent years. NBC and ABC will have new shows at 10 p.m practically every weeknight. Friday nights may become a battle ground again as well. CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC have expensive shows airing that night that will need lots of nurturing and marketing.
There was much new about this year’s upfronts week. In years past, the broadcast networks would spend a good chunk of their presentation talking about their digital strategies. This year, with the exception of ABC TV co-head Anne Sweeney’s gushing for the iPad (Apple boss Steve Jobs is on ABC parent Walt Disney Co.’s board of directors) and the CW’s pitch about social media, the networks stuck to the basics. That’s smart. For starters, until the networks figure out the what the digital business model is, there is no sense talking too much about it. Second, these guys don’t pay squat for online advertising so why try to sell them that?
On the business front, though, things remained the same. Networks still prefer to own their shows and treat them better. When Fox had to decide what show to move to low-rated Friday -- ‘Lie to Me,’ which is produced by its sister studio or ‘Human Target,’ which is from Warner Bros. -- it opted for the one it didn’t own. Both have similar ratings and a case could be made that there is greater upside to ‘Human Target’ than ‘Lie to Me.’ CBS decided to keep ‘Medium,’ which is made by its studio and tossed ‘Ghost Whisperer,’ which is half-owned by Disney.
Finally, some thoughts on the presentations themselves. ABC needs to act a little more like it enjoys being there. The network is pretty tight with a dollar and didn’t bring a lot of talent to its upfront. It didn’t hold a post-upfront party for advertisers like it used to, and this year didn’t even bother to have any sort of press-call or conference to discuss its strategy with reporters. Instead, the network offered up entertainment chief Steve McPherson for five-minute conversations. Wow, how generous!
Fox went overboard with the ‘Glee’ cast. Yes, it’s great to see and hear them, but once is enough. The cast opened the show (along with the rest of Fox’s stars). Then there was the ‘Glee’ clip fest and then they closed the show with ‘Like a Prayer,’ which did seem appropriate for the broadcast business. Having three executives eat up time that could be spent on the shows seems silly. Fox sales chief Jon Nesvig telling the crowd ‘quality and engaging content are advantages of broadcast TV’ doesn’t really bring a whole lot to the festivities. It’d be much more fun if he came out and said simply ‘cable blows.’ Of course, then he’d have to make exceptions for the Fox-owned cable networks.
The CW probably had the best upfront in terms of excitement. Part of that may have been because the network went last, and everyone was ready to cut loose at that point. But having Katy Perry open the show and implore a bunch of bloated advertising executives to get off their you-know-whats and dance was priceless. What was really classic though was the obscene gesture Perry made at the end of the CW’s presentation. We can’t describe it here, but it seems that Ms. Perry does have a pretty good idea of the lengths network executives will go to get advertisers.
-- Joe Flint
Top photo: ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ Credit: Sonja Flemming / Associated Press / CBS.