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The Upfront Finally Begins, and It's a Downer

There were two reports yesterday that the upfront TV ad sales market has finally begun, and it appears that in a some sense, despite accepting CPM decreases, the broadcast networks have won. While everyone, including CBS, which had hoped for cost-per-thousand increases this year, is seeing decreases in the CPM, advertisers have had to capitulate to the ticking of the clock. They have to get their ad buys sewn up in time to market certain products and services. Thus, their early hopes of double-digit declines in the CPM appear to now have crumbled to dust.

But the specifics of how the upfront market is unfolding depends on who you read:

  • To hear Mediapost tell it, about 20 percent to 30 percent of business is sewn up, with CPM decreases for the broadcast nets of between two percent and seven percent (with the seven percent going to ratings laggard NBC).
  • To hear Ad Age tell it, NBC and Fox are about half sold, and the range of the CPM decreases across the broadcast networks is one to three percent, with the exception of NBC, which is doing deals in the "mid-to-high single digit range", which, I guess, equals about the seven percent that Mediapost reported.
It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of the broadcast upfront because advertisers pay way too much for an asset that is declining, while cable share is increasing, and the ratings for some cable networks and shows are rivaling broadcast. This time around, the market expresses its true lunacy in what is happening with the NBC Universal-owned USA Network, the cable network ratings leader. Mediapost reports that it is doing business at two to five percent CPM decreases. So, in other words, even while network ratings decline, NBC Universal-owned USA is doing business in the same range or worse than most broadcast nets.

Every year, I wait for the upfront to rationalize itself, and for money to change hands based more closely on what is actually happening in viewership. I'm like Linus, waiting for the Great Pumpkin. What this market looks like, however, is a head nod to a lousy economy, with at best minimal recognition of the fact that cable ratings continue to increase and network ratings continue to decline, at much higher percentages than the decline in the CPM. There's always next year, I guess, but I'm not counting on it.

Previous coverage of the upfront at BNET Media: