A more civilized affair

With average increases pegged at 3% to 5%, buyers are launching into the upfront expecting a little less hype

Barring nuclear exchanges, this year’s upfront has to be a quieter affair than the last. But that’s not to say that all is status quo. While things might seem quiet on the Southern Upfront, much like that proverbial duck that bobs nonchalantly on the surface while it works its feet like mad below, the relative calm belies a storm of activity. Buyers say broadcasting is undergoing a quantum leap, and it’s time to adapt.

In the U.S., the upfront has been chugging along at mid-to-high single-digit increases, with only UPN pulling in double digits thanks to hits like American’s Next Top Model. Most media outlets predict the total network upfront will sit just above the US$9 billion mark, as it has for the last few years. And as predicted, cable is faring well. An estimated one billion dollars has emigrated, bringing that particular medium up 15% and above the US$6 billion mark.

In Canada, things are similarly less frenzied on network. The common consensus among buyers is that this year’s rate increases will fall somewhere within the 3% to 5% mark, with nets coming to the table with 9% to 15% mark-ups on some hit properties. That’s far from the proposed 25% and 30% increases for those titles that shocked so many last year. But this year the hype seems to be missing from the equation and buyers predict that overall spending will be flat at around the $2.5 billion mark that has been the norm of late, with the slower cable migration in Canada compensated by slightly larger client investments.

But buyers, like elephants, have long memories. Asked if there were lingering bad feelings over last year, one noted: ‘Oh, absolutely. I think if people have an opportunity to screw with Global, they will…. Global has to be careful. But a broadcaster can make things up in a big hurry if they seem a little more human, a little more understanding and they are a little more flexible.’

Ken Johnson, SVP television sales division at CanWest Global, concedes that the broadcaster came out with aggressive rates last fall but says rates have been competitive since January and will continue to be competitive this fall.

And, to be fair, it was hardly just Global with its hand in the cookie jar. Notes Val McMorran, Initiative Media’s broadcast director in Toronto, ‘I found everybody aggressive last year, including some of the major owner groups of specialty. I think the whole medium was getting caught up in the frenzy being fed from the U.S. upfront. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon thinking it was going to be a banner year. Practically every broadcaster group that came through our doors was in the double digits, but not necessarily with any rationale or justification.’

The year that was

While by mid-season last year Global looked like it was in trouble due to much of its schedule going AWOL, a look back on the entire year tells another story. While CTV came out on top in many categories, Global dominated the top 10 in the 18-to-34 demo with stronger showings for its two Survivor franchises, a parting surge for Friends (up to 18.4 AA from 11.4) and the additions of The Apprentice and still-surprise hit My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé. CTV countered with stronger C.S.I. showings (the main show jumped to 11.4 AA from 8.1, and Miami jumped to 11.0 from 6.7), as well as predictably solid showings from mainstays like American Idol, ER, Third Watch and additions like The Simple Life. For its part, the CBC showed big gains for hockey, while CHUM had no hits in the top 20 in the demo.

The story was almost exactly the same for the 18-to-49 demo, which showed more balance this year between the nets. While CTV lost The Osbournes and The Amazing Race from the top 20, it added The West Wing and The Simple Life. Global scratched Malcolm from the top 20, but barely noticed thanks to The Apprentice and better numbers for other shows in the field.

CTV dominated the top 20 in the 25-to-54 demo, taking nearly half the field and putting up increases for all of its properties. (Perhaps a surprising addition to the list for the net, given the death of actor John Ritter, was 8 Simple Rules.) While it didn’t rock the demo, Global put some numbers in the field and added Without A Trace, which squeaked into the top 20 with a 7.4 rating.

What will happen this year, given what buyers are calling a sub-par crop of shows, will have to be seen. As expected, reality dominated the new offerings, with Mark Burnett managing to put a series on what seems like every single U.S. net. (Oh, and add ‘dramality’ to your lexicon: the combination of drama and reality programming.) Although stand-up and sketch shows seem hot, sitcoms were few and far between. Interestingly, many buyers picked Fox’s Method and Red as the best sitcom, although it wasn’t picked up by a Canadian net.

Also witnessed is what Cathy Murray dubs ‘the evolution of the brand extension’ – more spin-offs for hits like C.S.I. and Law & Order. ‘At least there can only be three more,’ quipped one buyer, ‘since there are only seven days in a week.’

CTV: Some fine tuning

Buyers point out that when you start with eight hours of staple prime-time programming (four Law & Order franchises, three C.S.I. franchises and ER), it’s hard to lose. Add the Idols, Amazing Race and summer additions like The Casino and it looks as though CTV is poised to have another stellar year. Heck, CTV even had a Canadian hit this year with Corner Gas.

Although less affected by U.S. feed drop-outs than Global, even when CTV did have a show pulled from beneath its feet, it managed to plug in a winner like The Simple Life (which one buyer summarized as ‘the girls show up, screw up and then sulk about it’). All that’s left, notes SVP sales and marketing Rita Fabian, is to solidify its number-one position with strong additions.

New to the sked on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. is the only show buyers were willing to call a slam-dunk: C.S.I.: New York. But buyers also like Wife Swap (which Murray describes as ‘Dr. Phil meets Trading Spaces’), which will appear Mondays at 8 p.m. (pre-ABC). Some gave the nod to Desperate Housewives, which slots in Sundays at 7 in a pre-ABC feed. (Alias shares that space later in the year, also in pre-ABC mode.) Other additions include the Rob Lowe vehicle Dr. Vegas at 10 p.m. on Fridays (buyers note he should have stayed in Washington) and The Benefactor, which appears Mondays at 8 p.m. (for a full description of all the new shows, see ‘The Shows,’ page 23).

Some buyers also say they like CTV pick-up Kevin Hill, which has yet to find a home, and Law & Order: Trial By Jury, which will make an appearance mid-season.

Obviously, with this many hits on its hands, CTV is having to slip more titles out of simulcast, but for now that’s not a real problem. Buyers suggest the only room for improvement on CTV might be with the younger demos, which Global still dominates.

Global: Extreme Makeover, broadcast edition

Global has certainly had its share of bad press this past year, but that might have as much to do with its sales approach as its ratings. A quick look at the numbers shows that Global didn’t do too badly in most demos, although CH slipped. CanWest was certainly hurt by instability down south, but most buyers are willing to cut them slack providing the musical chairs come to an end.

The goal for this year? In a word: transparency. Look for CanWest to take plenty of time to explain to both viewers (through radio, print and on-air), and to the buying community, all the changes that are planned for the season. Notes Kathy Gardner, VP of integrated media research at CanWest Media Sales, it is a fine balance of ‘taking advantage of opportunities and minimizing changes that are having to be translated to the advertisers.’

Global has mapped out skeds that match up with its U.S. counterparts wherever possible. Look for Global Mondays to align with NBC, beginning with Fear Factor at 8 p.m., into Las Vegas (moving from CH) and new Heather Locklear outlet LAX. CH goes light on Mondays in midseason with Still Standing leading into Listen Up (another Jason Alexander attempt that buyers doubt will fly) and into The Swan. Topping the night all year long will be a new strip of That ’70s Show and Will & Grace.

Tuesdays on CH sees the introduction of The Billionaire (although ‘Trump will trump,’ notes Cathy Murray), leading into the 12th and final season of NYPD Blue. NYPD will be replaced with Steven Bochco’s Blind Justice later in the year. On Global midseason, look for the addition of the Burnett/Stallone reality show The Contender, leading in to buyer fave House. Wednesday on CH sees the addition of Hawaii at 8 p.m., and Mel Gibson effort Savages on Global at 8:30 p.m.

‘Friends who?’ is the question on Thursdays. Joey leads the night at 7:30 p.m, ramping up into new series of Survivor, The Apprentice and Without a Trace. Fridays on Global will begin with The Next Great Champ leading into The Jury, although those will give way to The Insider and Johnny Zero later in the year. Global Sundays remain in Fox simulcast, albeit in three incarnations this year. Added in the spring will be Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show at 7 p.m. and Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad at 9:30. CH will add The Practice: Fleet Street at 10 p.m.

CHUM: Steady as she goes

CHUM did its level best to add to the sked last year, but the problems Global felt with the U.S. nets were echoed here as well. The U.S. feeds for 10.8 and Jake 2.0 were canceled midseason and Fearless never even went to air.

This year, City will have the new Battlestar Galactica, a new series of America’s Next Top Model (also on New Nets), and Sex and the City on strip five days a week. The New Nets will add a number of series, including: Jack & Bobby, which Initiative’s McMorran picked as the only novel concept in the crop of new shows; Life As We Know It, which is being filmed in Vancouver by the folks who brought you Freaks & Geeks; Summerland from Aaron Spelling and The Ellen DeGeneres Show – a known quantity for buyers when much other talk has failed.

CHUM’s VP of programming Ellen Baine says the net plans to ‘do it strategically and do it slowly…. I think at heart, because we are programmers, we want to buy the stuff we really like. We are not buying tonnage and we are not buying time period.’
Buyers note that CHUM is all about second-tier stability, although the net’s ratings have slipped slightly in recent years. But buyers say CHUM is priced right, it usually has the inventory they need and it skews slightly younger. Notes Dennis Dinga, VP/director of broadcast buying for Toronto’s M2 Universal, ‘CHUM is sitting in a pretty good spot. Let CTV and Global fight it out and they can sit back. It is not costing them the same amount of money for programming. They are second tier, which advertisers and buyers are looking to use all the time.’

Buyers say CHUM faces challenges with its Vancouver and new Craig stations (some of which have been plagued by traffic problems, confirmations and pre-emptions), but the big question marks will occur in the next upfront, after the expected CRTC approval is granted. CBC: More high-impact events

Although the five seasons-within-a-season trial helped build the CBC’s numbers somewhat last year, executive director of network programming Slawko Klymkiw, believes there were just not enough events in the sked to attract the viewers he wanted: ‘It’s really an issue of having the critical mass and the number of titles to make this work. And I think we have that this year, but you have to have a high impact event once or twice a month, and if you do that you are able to drive a lot more awareness to your schedule.’

Look for the CBC to try to gain ground with must-see TV events like hockey reality show Making the Cut and The Greatest Canadian, series like Il Duce Canadese, Sex Traffic and H2O, as well as features like the first Lord of the Rings movie. Also look for Coronation Street to move into a weekday prime-time slot at 7:30 p.m. which will hopefully bring its half million viewers with it. (The venerable hit scored almost a million viewers recently in that spot during British Week.)

For the most part, buyers take a ‘the CBC is the CBC’ attitude and point to the fact that with the Coronation Street move as the biggest announcement, the sked is not likely to be challenging CTV for supremacy any time soon. (Not that that’s the CBC’s role….) Still, they warn that a hockey strike will cause the broadcaster problems, and how it will affect total spend is yet to be determined, depending on whether those advertisers switch to other nets, other media or hold off on spending altogether.

Buyers adjust to ‘the new normal’

More skeds, more shows, more changes – but less time

Welcome to the new paradigm: More schedules. More shows. More changes throughout the year. It’s the new norm, and viewers, broadcasters and buyers are adapting. In this environment, nets will have to spend more time explaining when and where buyers and viewers can find shows, or opportunities will be missed.

Last season, for example, cancellations saw nets replace shows with unexpected hits (such as The Apprentice), and some clients couldn’t get on board because they didn’t have the money to allocate or they didn’t expect the show to explode.

The fault for the lion’s share of those cancellations rests at the feet of the U.S. nets, which seem quicker than ever to yank shows that don’t deliver. Notes Kathy Gardner, VP of integrated media research at CanWest Media Sales, ‘there is more of an immediacy than there has been in the past to deliver returns. And as the U.S. networks obviously work off of guaranteed cost per thousands, they are trying to deliver within a shorter time frame.’

While that impatience is being whipped into a frenzy by the terror of continued erosion to U.S. cable, the fear factor is only half the story. The positive spin is that U.S. nets have had great success with summer and mid-season replacements. The 52-week-a-year programming paradigm has been shown to be a winner and viewers want more.

So, rather than fight the inevitable, this year even more changes are being implemented in the States. Fox has moved to three seasons in order to keep its sked constantly fresh. The other nets have decided against running repeats or allowing hit shows to go on hiatus. Buyers also noted another new euphemism this year: ‘amortization theatre.’ Although it might sound like a new Lon Chaney vampire slot, it’s actually just the practice of repeating hit shows on Saturday night, with the hope that they will be able to pull viewers twice a week.

MPG/Maxxmedia buyer Cathy Murray says buyers and broadcasters have to work on a new economic framework. (For example, with no new money to allocate last year, many clients were only able to use make-goods to take advantage of hit replacements.)

‘We’re still working it through and figuring out how to do the dollar volume deals that give us the efficiencies that we want while still having the flexibility to jump in on programs that pop up from time to time,’ notes Murray. ‘We now need to figure out with our clients how to take advantage of these very-changing schedules.’

And the uncertainty is only going to increase. Notes Sylvia Criger, managing partner of The Media Company in Toronto, ‘you take a flyer on [new shows] and then four weeks later they are a big hit. And then of course everyone wants on board and then you drop out because the price gets too high. It is not the ideal to be scheduling or buying TV programs. But you know I think this is the new normal for TV.’ BC