On the fifth day, following four days in may of network prime-time upfronts, a broadcast buyer remarked to us: "It's gonna be a long summer." When the final curtain dropped at the cavernous Armory on Lexington Ave. where Peter Ligouri of Fox, the last network to present its 2006 fall schedule, made a nervous and awkward plea for ad dollars there was a mad scramble of advertisers, not to order spot inventory but to get out of the uncomfortable, overheated room.
"No cold pizza this time," said the buyer. "Cold pizza" refers to late-night sessions where buyers and sellers haggle well past normal dinner hours. "This time," said my colleague, "we're gonna eat prime rib."
When you read this column, it will be July and likely the steaks are still simmering and the broadcast deals are not all done. Typically, the big networks sell their entire upfront inventory by June. But this year the supply exceeds the demand. Clients don't need to rush to market and can really think about what they are doing before they do it, as evidenced by Johnson & Johnson's decision to take a wait-and-see approach to this year's program slate.
And there are lots of programs and networks to choose from, as well as many emerging platforms video-on-demand, mobisodes, Webisodes, etc. for which the pricing extensions are not easy to determine. As of this writing, even the networks are prepared to make deals methodically, agency by agency.
Yes, the TV slates are as cluttered as Greek diner menus. Adding to the profusion (and confusion), there are brand integration offerings which, if they were on a Greek menu, would be listed somewhere down by the baklava and other sweets. Every network offered such goodies in the upfronts, but only one was really bold enough to bring them to the top of the card.
That was MyNetworkTV, the newly minted News Corp. family created from Fox affiliates and others orphaned by the merger of The WB and UPN. Frankly, MyNetworkTV was our favorite upfront. Why? For one, it was as loud and bombastic as a Fox News show, and as ballsy, because despite new network chief Bob Cook's bluster, his schedule is not a sure thing. A network devoted exclusively to prime-time soaps starring freshman talent and based on plots cribbed from telenovela scripts is a risky venture, no matter what the big-screen graphics attempted to hammer into our brains. "Two billion viewers worldwide!" an announcer barked as audience numbers erupted across a map of the globe moving closer and closer to the U.S. like a virus or an alien invasion.
The News Corp. numbers masked some bad math. If the first installment of "Secret Obsessions" doesn't make its audience guarantees, will advertisers be offered make-goods in "Desire," a nearly identical-looking series? At the moment, there are just too few actually only two options for advertisers on MyNetworkTV. The network claims it has backup programming ready. What is it? Four more telenovelas, which are in production, and Touchstone's "Desperate Housewives" in syndication. Talk about variety.
Still, MyNetworkTV is a daring move one that reminds us of Fox TV itself, which launched in 1986 with just "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" and 20 years later has captured the biggest prize in broadcast network TV: the top Nielsen ratings spot among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic.
MyNetworkTV was also our fave because Bob Cesa, EVP sales for Twentieth Television, announced that since his company is producing all of the net's programming, there will be no "third party" producers to bloat prices. With people like Mark Burnett having aggressively upped the stakes in the past few years, the big broadcast networks have clamped down on integration deals, making sure they are in control and not allowing producers to cut side deals with advertisers. As a result, only the richest marketers have been able to play, as the nets have been demanding seven-figure media buys as the cost of entry.
Telenovelas have a populist spirit, giving ambitious young talent a shot at the big time and letting brands play a big role. MyNetworkTV appears to be embracing this democratic impulse. Here's hoping MyNetworkTV will open the doors of the exclusive prime-time boys' club to a wider, more inclusive membership good news for brands with big ambitions and modest budgets.
Hank Kim and Richard Linnett are directors at MPG Entertainment. (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)