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Handicapping the Upfront

With Upfront Week going down in New York, Horizon Media Senior VP/Research Director Brad Adgate is a busy man. He has witnessed more than his share of upfront seasons—“dozens,” he says—across a 30-year career in media research. While most industry watchers are forecasting a flat upfont, Adgate says a few key marketers can make or break the season. He spoke with B&C's Michael Malone about which network needs the biggest boost, which genre will supplant dark dramas and why sitcoms could finally bust out this year.

So what's your upfront prediction?

It depends on two things: How many advertisers participate and on what level they do. Last year, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson decided not to be in the upfront. Anheuser-Busch talked about incremental dollars going to cable and digital media. Whether it's up or down or flat will be contingent on where these companies allocate their dollars. I haven't heard anyone say, “We're not going to be in the upfront.” But that could change.

The market will be flat, at best. It may drop down a little bit. Marketers have more opportunities to spend their dollars than ever before. The whole upfront: $9 billion, at best.

Which network looks strongest?

The simple answer would be Fox because they have American Idol and 24, though both have suffered ratings erosions. [The network has] really cut back on baseball in the fourth quarter, which has been an Achilles heel. I'm curious to see what strategy Fox has for the fourth quarter because they've tried just about everything.

Which looks weak?

I think NBC. [NBC is a client of Horizon Media, Adgate notes.] NBC has to come up with something after football. They have a lot of good shows like Heroes that bring in a quality audience that advertisers really crave. It's going to be interesting to see what they do with these shows going forward.

Last year was all about the dark serial dramas. What's the trend this year?

Shows with people transporting from heaven or hell, or purgatory to Earth, shows dealing with time travel, and shows featuring empowered women.

How big a part will online play in the upfront?

It's going to be bigger, but it's going to be under a billion dollars. I think it will grow at a disproportionate rate, but it's nowhere near where linear television is going to be.

If you look at February numbers, the networks are getting 8 million unique visitors a month. That shows the power of television.

You look at the bug on ABC, and it's “” They're really just using the Web as a platform. But I think they'll spend a disproportionate amount of time in their presentations discussing their digital offerings [compared with] what the revenue will be.

Do you see product placement increasing?

To an extent. It's guerilla marketing, and if it gets to the point when you expect to see products in a show, it loses its salability and can turn off the viewer. But it's become another [significant] revenue stream.

In terms of the metrics being used in deal-making—commercial ratings, IAG engagement figures—what's the latest?

I'm not sure there's a standard definition for engagement any time soon. I think it's part of the sell, but I'm not sure whether it's something you put into a sales presentation. With commercial-minute ratings, it's going to be a very long upfront.

Typically, that means it's a buyer's market, but that's not necessarily the case. People will try to figure out what the currency is, and we might have a lot of currencies out there. That's going to take time.

Will this be the year for a breakout comedy?

It's harder and harder to break a comedy out. But look at what's most popular on YouTube: comedy. There are funny shows on NBC, and what's interesting is they're heavily time-shifted. Viewers watch Grey's Anatomy or CSI live but time-shift the comedies. The goal is to get them to watch comedies live and time-shift the [dramas].

Networks are blaming a decrease in viewership on [expanded] DayLight Saving Time. Do you buy it?

Look, Survivor and Millionaire had 20+ million viewers in the summer. I think it comes down to, is the show good and do people want to watch it? Viewers have more choices than ever before, and it's not necessarily on television anymore.