TV's Upfront Time: Schizophrenically Comforting

Given the pronouncements of TV network leaders, it would seem to be one of the most schizophrenic upfront markets in some time.

News Corp. COO Peter Chernin said Fox sold about 70 percent of its upfront inventory at 2 percent to 3 percent CPM increases at a West Coast investor conference. At the same event, Tom Staggs, CFO of Walt Disney Co., said the market has been very slow for ABC--with ABC not even doing any deals as yet. On top of that, Les Moonves, CEO of CBS Corp. expressed surprise that Fox has gotten to the levels it has, noting the market is at a much lower level.

One media executive doesn't recall the last time there has been this kind of disparity in selling--and marketplace information--among the networks. He didn't remember the last time one network was so far out ahead in terms of selling, while another hadn't even started



The irony, of course, is this: The major TV networks are separated by just tenths of a rating point in 18-49, the most parity in terms of viewers of virtually any time in TV history.

What gives?

Chernin blamed misinformation--especially among the press--during this upfront.

But marketplace forces always have the upper hand; they decide the direction of money, not the press.

"At the end of the day, ratings sometimes don't matter, schedules don't matter, and clout doesn't matter. Sometimes the market just is what it is," said a veteran media agency executive.

That's comforting. You spend all year working your schedule, plying the press with big news stories about how well your rookie drama or your hot new reality show is doing--and then one day in June a major media buying agency says, "Sorry, we already spent most of our money. You'll be competing with cable networks and syndication programmers for the scraps."

Media agencies executives still believe that for some networks, it's still a negative marketplace. But they don't hold all the cards: the networks have a few to play. Moonves, for example, talked a lot about CBS using the scatter markets--as the network did, doing surprisingly well a few years ago.

All this means is that this upfront is a cranky upfront, with continuing eccentricity.

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