New Schedules, Tight Economy Impact Upfront

In the aftermath of last week's network upfront presentations, there are two ways of looking at the upfront ad buying season: from the perspective of the new schedules that were announced and from the perspective of the economy and advertiser budgets.

As for the new schedules, there were a bevy of new shows announced and new directions taken by some of the networks, ABC in particular, which is hoping its new comedy lineup will enable it to emerge from the trenches. Meanwhile, The WB "may have made a daring move by going with all comedy against NBC on Thursday," says Jordan Breslow, manager national broadcast research at Mediacom.

But "most of the presentations were fairly safe, with few bold moves made by any network," Breslow says. CBS and NBC, the big winners this season, leave most of their schedules intact, although they are adding a few new shows. Among the highlights: CBS will add Still Standing, a comedy that will be a lead in to Everybody Loves Raymond and CSI: Miami, a drama that will compete with NBC's Crossing Jordan; NBC will add three comedies on Tuesday, including American Dreams as a lead in to Frasier; ABC's new happy hour of comedies will be led by 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter, starring Three's Company's John Ritter. Fox will replace Ally McBeal with a new David E. Kelly drama girls club; UPN will add Half and Half, a sit com for African Americans and The Twilight Zone, a remake of the '60s classic.

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"Every network did an excellent job of building off their strengths," says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of PHD USA, a media buying firm. But when it comes to actually selling ads, economic issues come into play. "It's a reflection of the economy," DeCabia says. "Clients are still cautious, so there's not as high a demand or high budgets and September 11 made it worse. There's a small uptick in the market now, but we haven't seen the budgets and we're waiting for them to come in. Everyone's waiting as long as they can."

"The economy is sending mixed signals," says Bruce Cohen, senior vice president group director at Mediavest. "One day it's up and one day it's down. Clients are trying to read the overall economic situation with a lot of budget calculations going on now."

Jack Myers, editor of Jack Myers Report, says the amount of budget uncertainty is "unheard of at this late date." But he says, "It's consistent with the pattern since Sept. 11, holding out until the last minute for spending commitments. Media sellers are very bullish, but buyers don't see the budgets to justify the bullishness."

Myers predicted a one percent increase in upfront spending, but he says other estimates have been as high as a five percent. Cohen believes the networks will still be able to sell what they want and keep the rest for the scatter market. But it's too early to say how much will actually be sold and at what rates. Today advertisers are still pondering the new schedules, which Cohen says are "a lot to digest." After they decide which shows they want to buy and how much they can spend, the upfront will move into high gear. It is estimated that $7 billion will be spent.

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