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The End Of the Upfront … As We Know It

For some, the first sign of spring is a sighting of a robin, or hearing the crack of the bat against a baseball. For media buyers on Madison Avenue, the season is heralded by a spate of upfront presentations from programmers trying to lock down commitments to advertise on their networks for the duration of the coming television season.

The presentations last for hours, with plenty of pre- and post-show schmoozing, drinking and eating. And entertainment in between.

With these multimedia, palate-inundating affairs, networks aim to get on the radar screens of media planners and buyers as they prepare for an annual advertising bazaar during which broadcasters often sell up to 80% of their commercial inventory for the entire season. Large cable channels, with more availabilities to sell, can move up to 60% of their time upfront.

But as the advertising business changes, the upfront presentation process evolves. The cost of reaching 1,000 viewers is now flanked with client interest in engagement and data on viewer retention.

Sponsorships and product immersion carry more weight. Digital opportunities, including online, broadband, podcasts and mobile opportunities, are proliferating. In short, the importance of purely moving 30-second spots, while still vital to marketing plans, has diminished.

At the same time, more transactions are taking place closer to air date. Agencies and clients are working the so-called scatter market more thoroughly, extending the romancing beyond the upfront carnival. Selling the year takes all year.

For the networks, the chore is to give their advertisers more information on how those programmers can help get their marketing messages across utilizing an array of platforms — traditional TV spots, online and even on handheld devices. Even if it comes at the expense of witnessing another high-profile actress or watching a musical group perform amidst thousands of their peers.

Two of cable’s largest programmers, MTV Networks and Turner Broadcasting System, have responded in kind.

The Viacom group, famous for huge parties showcasing its vast portfolio of networks and such diverse talent over the years as Ozzy Osbourne and Kanye West, has adopted a series of rolling interactive ad-sales events for each network.

These meetings with individual clients, held throughout the calendar year, will highlight research findings, new programming initiatives and creative solutions, as well as “digi-tour” and demo events. A top strategy session will be held in the fall for chief marketing officers.

Turner Entertainment, meanwhile, has put a new spin on the presentation gambit. Lenny Kravitz and The Eagles have flown the coop in favor of a series of “Brand & Programming Summits” before smaller groups of agency folk and clients.

Another big cable programmer, Discovery Networks U.S., has elected to maintain its all-encompassing format.

“We have 14 networks, and not all of them are included. We have a lot of news shows. It’s a time-efficiency thing with Discovery,” said president of ad sales Joe Abruzzese. “We’re saying, 'Give us two hours and you’re going to see a lot of stuff.’

“Sometimes when I was at CBS, they would present two to four new shows, then give you a look at daytime, sports and news over four hours.”

But even if the idea of big, splashy presentations may be in retreat, that doesn’t mean there is no shortage of other meetings to shape upfront planning.

“There are 60 cable networks to consider and they’re coming to see us continually,” said Shari Anne Brill, Carat USA’s vice president and director of programming services. “Sometimes there are triple- and even quadruple-headers” at this time of year.

If anything, more players are jumping into the fray. Saying it was reflective of the 52-week approach many buyers now take to the market, women’s-targeted Oxygen Media kicked off perhaps the earliest upfront presentation season ever — on Jan. 23, weeks before the first major snowfall blanketed the New York area.

Yahoo — an Internet content purveyor — got in the game on March 12, while another Web competitor, AOL, is prepping for its inaugural upfront event on April 17.

MPG North America CEO Charlie Rutman, who has taken some shots at the length and time commitment to the various presentations by saying he doesn’t need “another shrimp cocktail,” noted that presentations still play a key role in driving the upfront.

“Look, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. No matter what the forum, you have a professional obligation to your clients to give them full attention,” he said. “I certainly don’t think you can accuse people of having upfront [attention deficit disorder].”

“Down the road, you might see fewer big formal presentations,” Rutman added. “The direction may be to just tell us what’s going on the business side” and reduce the entertainment elements.

“If they keep it short and a little entertaining, a network can really stand out,” Horizon Media senior vice president of research Brad Adgate said. That’s especially true with cable, where a network only needs one or two breakout original shows to make a mark, he noted.

“Maybe the presentations do get a bit tedious, but if you learn about one show that hits and you liked it, you look smart,” Adgate said.

Here, then, is a tour of the upfront — and how five networks tried this year to break through the presentation clutter and look smart in the eyes of clients and at least one other interested observer.