Networks Programming Showcase for Advertisers

Networks and advertisers are making the rounds. Called upfronts, these annual meetings are where networks present their new fall line up to advertisers and the press. And the networks are in a weak position.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today, major advertisers get the kind of treatment you would expect to get if you were about to spend several billion dollars. Big companies are deciding where to place ads on TV, so thousands of advertisers gathered in New York. They get a look at upcoming programs, they get their pictures taken with the stars, and amid all that excitement, they may decide where to buy ad time and for how much.

This year, NPR entertainment correspondent Kim Masters says there's an added emotion. And Kim, that emotion is?

KIM MASTERS: Panic. The networks are very, very worried. And in fact everybody I've talked to in the business, an agent, CBS executive, a show runner, all of them say that there's been a very precipitous ratings drop particularly since December, about seven percent since last year, and no one quite knows why, but it puts them in a very weak position. The networks are in a weak position as they enter the negotiation.

INSKEEP: So we can expect the stars of TV shows to be tap dancing for the advertisers this year?

MASTERS: Yeah, there's a feeling of what do we do. All of them had a lot of shows that failed last year. Remember "Studio 60" was the much regaled NBC show. It went down in flames. "Kidnapped," "The Black Donnellys," all the stuff NBC was trying except "Heroes," and even that hasn't been immune to a rating shot in the last few weeks.

INSKEEP: So if you're an advertiser, you're going to these meetings called the upfronts, right, where you get an upfront look at everything. How many billions of dollars did they spend last year?

MASTERS: Nine, $9 billion all told. Now, this year…

INSKEEP: What do you do if you're deciding this year about your $9 billion or whatever it might be?

MASTERS: Well, one of the fights they're going to have is how do you count a rating. It used to be they just measured who was supposedly watching and that was it. Now we have the advent of the DVR, the digital video recorder, TiVo. People are watching maybe later that day, maybe later that week. The advertisers are saying, let's just count what you're watching as it's broadcast, so-called live. The networks are saying, oh, no, why don't you give us that plus seven days.

Because even if you look at the ratings drop year to year - seven percent, you know, that I mentioned earlier - it's only four percent if you factor in some of the DVR viewing. So the networks are trying to say, give us the DVR stuff, guys. All the advertisers are sort of saying, well, why should we, we don't know if people are fast-forwarding through the commercials in the first place and missing the whole thing.

INSKEEP: Does television still make economic sense?

MASTERS: Well, yes, you still have the greatest aggregation of eyeballs in television, and for now that's true and there's no changing that. So, yes, billions of dollars of business will be done. The question is, you know, how long can the networks hold their ground, and how much of it can they hold.

INSKEEP: Is there a program or a strategy that any one network is looking at and saying this is what's going to save us, at least for this year?

MASTERS: Well, CBS, oddly enough, maybe because they're in the strongest position, they are really trying to sort of just through some spaghetti at the wall. I mean, they always do that, but this year their spaghetti is kind of weird. They are bringing in a musical, a thing with a musical component called "Viva Laughlin" which is based on a British show, "Viva Blackpool." They've got something called "Swing Town," which sounds like it should be on HBO, about couples in the '70s who are misbehaving. And they have a sort of "Sopranos"-like thing with Jimmy Smits. It's being called the Latino "Sopranos." But they're trying some of the more off-the-wall stuff.

The other networks are going with some kind of supernatural sort of things, maybe because "Heroes" was pretty successful. But the "Bionic Woman" will be back on NBC. And ABC has one thing up its sleeve, even though they've taken such a terrific hit this past in the ratings drop, a spin-off of "Grey's Anatomy."

INSKEEP: NPR's bionic entertainment correspondent Kim Masters. Thanks very much.

KIM MASTERS: Thank you.

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