Surprise! Upfront Has Started -- In Theory

With the coming of the new year, marketers are getting increasingly nervous about the drop in ratings, a potential of tons of make-goods, and the long-term effects of a continuing writers' strike. Oh, have I forgotten to mention this was the first year of commercial ratings guarantees.

What kind of market is this? Simply put, it's the opposite of stability.

To that end, I propose the best way to shake off those crazy market woes is with an end of the year broadcast upfront advertising market. That's right, it's upfront time -- time-shifted, of course.

For years cable networks have made calendar year deals with specific advertisers. In recent years Johnson & Johnson decided to replicate some of that activity with the broadcast networks.

But with the scary drop in ratings, and a real possible side effect of skyrocketing price hikes, there are rumors a few big packaged consumer goods companies are looking to push the broadcast networks for early upfront deals for the 2008-2009 season -- perhaps in the next several weeks.



This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Already marketers in mid-November were looking to make second quarter 2008 scatter deals. Forget about the upfront advertising market going away -- it may root in deeper.

Will early upfront deals happen? Some believe it's a foregone conclusion. Others are less sure: "Only if a recession isn't coming," says one veteran media executive.

In the meantime, more weird changes: Marketers might be getting cash back from networks -- and that isn't a good thing. If cash is indeed given back, TV marketers will have to figure out where to spend it on short notice -- radio, print, online, wild postings?

What do networks now tell holiday-season-primed retailers or movie marketers? "Here's your money. Good luck in finding ratings points in between your Christmas shopping."

All to say, according to another media executive: "I've never seen the TV market so unstable."

In the meantime, with the writers' strike still going, look for crazier shifting of network programming schedules.

Some predictions:

-- ABC will decide to finally air a bunch of NBA games on Saturday nights in January - just like it does with college football on Saturday night in the fourth quarter.

-- Look for Fox to run "American Idol" three nights a week, thus hurting the other networks even more now, since they can only air repeats and reality shows.

-- Finally, watch for NBC to produce its first-ever commercial-free series sponsored by TiVo -- the company who first gave consumers all that commercial-skipping ability.

Next season is already here -- for advertisers, anyway. TV networks just need to play catch-up.

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