Total Upfront Take Even Worse Than You Thought, But Not for the Reasons You Thought

Last Updated Sep 21, 2009 11:14 PM EDT

Credit Suisse has gone out on a limb, maybe a pretty sturdy one actually, about where the total take in the broadcast networks' upfront ad sales market really mapped out. And it's even worse than we thought. Total volume was down 22 percent to $7.2 billion, with Credit Suisse pegging the individual drop-offs at the broadcast nets as follows: ABC and CBS each down $1.9 billion or 24 percent; NBC down 21 percent to $1.5 billion and Fox dropping 18 percent to $1.6 billion.

The first tipoff that there's something more to these numbers than a simple media recession is the following: that CBS (yes, BNET's ultimate corporate overlord), was the ratings leader last season, but tied with ABC for the biggest percentage decline. Meanwhile, NBC, the clear ratings laggard, which reportedly had 7 percent declines in ad rates during this just concluded upfront, saw a lesser overall decline. Huh?

Here's what's at work: the networks' strategy of holding back more inventory than usual for the later scatter market, in the hopes that an economic turnaround will make advertisers more interested in buying ad time then they were during the upfront market. Credit Suisse, to its credit, is way onto this. The bank reported that only Fox sold what it is generally considered to be in the normal range for the upfront -- at 75 percent. As such, you could wonder if its drop, a relatively modest, but still whopping, 18 percent, is more indicative of how the market might have done had most of the broadcast nets played by the usual rules. Credit Suisse said that NBC, ABC and CBS sold only 71 percent, 68 percent and 65 percent of their inventory respectively. (OK, I ignored the CW here, but you get the drift.) It would take a miracle for the inventory that was withheld to make up for the revenue lost so far in the 2009-10 season. Credit Suisse's report is a window into how high stakes the strategy is.

Previous coverage of the upfront at BNET Media: