O.C. success spawns hot summer slate

Coming months will see new laffers, dramas and scads of reality; but rumours of double-digit increases are setting buyers on edge

With Fox making hay last summer with newfound hit The O.C., you knew this summer was going to be all that and a bag of chips. And while spring might turn a young man’s fancy to love, all this new-found summer hype has the U.S. nets dreaming about double-digit rate increases.

Buyers warn, however, that they’re not in the mood.

Of all the U.S. nets, Fox has announced perhaps the most aggressive summer slate. Beginning in June, it will premier court drama The Jury, a drama dubbed North Shore, as well as two comedies: Quintuplets and Method & Red. Most notably, look for a new Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) reality show called The Casino to begin airing this summer on Mondays (repeated Thursdays). New episodes of The Bernie Mac Show and Simple Life 2, along with several other series, will also make appearances.

On NBC you’ll find Come to Papa, a six-episode comedy that was bumped from the fall sked. Also up is Last Comic Standing, For Love or Money and the despondently titled Who Wants to Marry My Dad? Keep an eye peeled as well for a new reality show called The Next Action Star, wherein network folk search for an action movie star of each sex.

So far, ABC has remained relatively quiet, although it will feature a drama called The Days along with new episodes of The Drew Carey Show.

It’s CBS that seems to be making the most noise, though. CBS plans to run The Bachelor 5, Big Brother 5, Amazing Race 5 (something biblical happens next year…) and will add The Will, a reality show from Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss where contestants compete to inherit an estate. Oddly, The Will premiered on ABC last year to general yawns before being taken on by CBS. (The real heat comes in the fall when CBS plans to launch CSI: New York featuring Gary Sinise.)

CBS has done much hollering about its lineup in the trade media south of the border, stating that it plans to grab big bucks from its network competitors. Understandably, all this hoo-haw has started U.S. buyers thinking they’re being set up for double-digit rate increases.

Cue the Clint Eastwood music

As might be expected, the mere suggestion of such a hike is greeted with an icy chill on the client side. Notes Genesis Media CEO Bruce Claassen, ‘I think it would be outrageously foolhardy – not withstanding the production cost escalation they are facing, which they are tempering with reality shows – if they went into the market saying ‘We want to have another 15% or 20% increase in our upfronts.” While buyers see a ‘reasonable’ increase being swallowed by their clients, they warn that anything untoward will spur more migration to specialties and other media.

Bad feelings over last fall’s rate-hikes-against-results are definitely still close to the surface. ‘You keep hearing from the U.S. that [networks] are starting to demand double-digit increases like they did last year,’ observes Mary Lampasona, Toronto-based broadcast manager for Cossette Media. ‘I don’t think they will get them. It seems like there will be a big backlash if they do that.

‘Our clients’ budgets are not increasing like our rates are…. If rates continue to increase the way they are, clients are obviously going to take their money and go to another medium. You can’t blame them.’

While those south of the border have seen the summer skeds and know what they are selling their clients into, at press time those north of the border were still waiting for the broadcasters to do the last bit of tinkering. Some expect that this hold-up will push the Canadian upfront back a few weeks.

At press time, neither CHUM nor Global had quite put the finishing touches on their schedules, although CTV could confirm it was running the second instalment of its successful Canadian Idol franchise. It will also air Amazing Race in simulcast (beginning July 6), as well as Simple Life 2 and For Love or Money (the latter starting June 7). Buyers say that CTV will lead the pricing again this year.

But a pall of uncertainty hangs over both the Canadian and U.S. markets. Andi Kupersmith, SVP and director of Canadian media at New York-based Active International, attributes much of it to upcoming events such as the Olympics, the possibility of an NHL lock-out, pending elections north and south of the border, and the continuing instability in the U.S. and Canadian economies.

Notes Kupersmith, ‘Things change on a daily basis here in terms of what anyone thinks is going to happen with our economy. Every day a different piece of news comes out and the market does well or interest rates go up and down.’ All that change has meant even more strategizing than is typical for all players this time of year, if that’s possible.

But the underlying question, given the strength of such summer programming, continues to be the validity of the upfronts as a concept. With broadcasters like Fox turning to a year-round schedule, added to the continued sked shuffling that happens all year long, buyers can’t help but wonder what it is they are buying.

The upfronts offer a dollar volume discount, but the shows purchased may or may not be there when the time comes. It’s worse down south, with U.S. advertisers able to opt out of their commitments at any point, rendering the upfront numbers all but meaningless.

Look for the industry on both sides of the border to keep a close eye on the results of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers’ Network Upfront Discussion Group (NUDG) that began a series of meetings in New York on April 29.