NBC, CBS Execs: Are Upfronts Obsolete?

Top executives at NBC Universal and CBS have been dropping hints that their gala upfront presentations could be canceled or downgraded -- and that's fine with media agency executives. But executives say from the networks' perspective, scrapping those glamorous events would be a mistake.

Andy Donchin, executive vice president of national broadcast at Carat, says nixing the presentation "isn't a big deal for clients and agencies. Maybe we need more one-on-one meetings--agency-specific meetings. It's not the worst thing in the world."

Jackie Kulesza, vice president and activation director at Starcom, added: "The best upfront presentations are those where clarity of a network's vision and value are clear and concise. We wouldn't be averse to greater clarity and concise information regardless of format or location."

Jeff Zucker, president/CEO of NBC Universal, has strongly suggested the network might not have an upfront presentation this May, while Les Moonves, president/CEO at CBS Corp., said his company is also considering the same action or possibly downgrading the affair.



A year ago, Carat's Donchin led an effort requesting that networks streamline their often drawn-out affairs--since media executives can spend 15 hours in their seats during the collective upfront presentations. The networks did respond with truncated presentations.

Even then, there is no time for discussions during these events--talks that are increasingly needed among media agency executives, clients and network executives in a bigger integrated media world, according to executives.

"There are no collaborative talks going on at Radio City Music Hall," says Kris Magel, senior vice president and director of national broadcast for Initiative, in reference to NBC's customary upfront presentation venue. "If there are any collaborative talks that happen at the after-party, no one can remember it the next day."

Media executives say there have always been separate meetings with network executives before or after the event--so why double up?

Larry Novenstern, executive vice president and director of national electronic media for Optimedia U.S., said watching the parade of Hollywood stars performing and introducing new shows was enjoyable, but now seems outmoded.

"I don't think it's been needed for years, quite honestly," he said. "If they are going to save a few million dollars, they can [also] stop charging us integration fees. That's outdated, too."

Much of the networks' thinking has been expected--especially this year. With little in the way of program development, there are few to no pilots to show to executives. Without pilots, there is no need for big presentations, since showing video is a central reason why upfronts exist.

In possibly making these moves, networks are addressing a long-time issue: Media executives complain they don't see enough video of the new shows. But media executives do get full pilot DVDs of shows virtually the day after the upfront presentations. By eliminating the upfront presentations, networks would eliminate this redundancy.

Still, media agency executives say--from a network perspective--it's a mistake to cancel the events, especially in these transitional times, given the writers' strike, advent of commercial ratings, growth of DVRs and emergence of digital video distribution.

"This is not a time for [Zucker] to take a low profile," a media executive said. "This is the time you want to arrest someone's attention. You can't do that with one-on-one meetings. It doesn't have the same impact. You are trying to swell excitement."

Added Starcom's Kulesza: "They can build a lot of programming buzz among the press, as well as inform a lot of marketers."

A recent survey of chief marketing officers, for example, anticipates that marketing budgets will be up 4% in the coming year. A top agency executive said it would be a mistake to change to a lower profile at the expense of possibly grabbing $500 million in new business.

"Do they need [the upfront presentations] to negotiate their business? No. Would business continue? Yes," the executive said. "But it's about posturing, and your message. It's about selling. It's like a rally at a football game."

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