Commentary

TV's Upfront: Up Or Down? It's Anybody's Bet, Including Journalists

By all indications, TV's upfront might be moving to Las Vegas soon. The betting and bluffing are at their highest levels right now. And from all indication, by business journalists will still be writing stories about the upfront.

Here's what TV marketers are currently saying: "Guess what, TV networks? In this poor economy, you'll be getting less money from us this upfront!" The TV networks respond this way: "Guess what, TV marketers? We'll be selling you less this upfront!"

Okay, now go figure out where pricing is going to be.

Like it or not, TV's crazy advertising dance started when NBC's Jeff Zucker and CBS' Les Moonves dangled possible adjustments -- including selling way less advertising this upfront period, all in the name of keeping those precious program prices, those cost-per-thousand viewers, headed in the right direction.

Every season it gets harder to read the upfront tea leaves, and every season many industry pundits say journalists should stop reporting on the upfront marketplace. Years ago, one senior media agency executive told me sternly: "The upfront is none of your business."

Okay. I'll go along -- that is, until every celebrity journalist stops writing about Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan. After all -- what's more important here?

Admittedly, upfront prognosticating has become as difficult and of little value as guessing tomorrow's top viral video on YouTube. Trying to figure out which network will improve its overall volume and placing among 18-49 CPMs, is dangerous and tricky.

But upfront reporting isn't about conducting a full-scale market survey. Get over it. It's getting the most accurate news possible. Mistakes?  Oh yeah. No one makes mistakes except journalists, right? Media executives are perfect.

In that regard, perhaps the upfront market should abide by Sarbanes-Oxley rules -- complete transparency. This goes for media sellers and media buyers.

Networks may counter with: "Hey, these aren't deals; just promises to complete deals." So then journalists should report on those promises -- which 95% of the time become actual orders.

TV business writers, like all business writers, are instructed to make sense of the financial world.  I hear the First Amendment is still around. Otherwise, you'll find me writing tons of Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann stories for the month of June.

Of course there'll be some betting and bluffing there, too.

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