Ad Dollars at Issue in TV 'Upfronts'

Television networks in New York are unveiling their new shows to advertisers. It's a process known as "the upfronts." The industry is trying to get an idea of how much advertisers will put into TV, and how much will be siphoned off by the Web.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

It's the time of the year when the television networks and the advertisers perform a nervous mating ritual. At a series of presentations called the upfronts, the networks reveal their shows for the fall season. Each network wants to convince the advertisers, who are looking to sell everything from cars to soap to new movies, that their shows will reach the most desirable audience.

Here to explain a bit about the upfronts is NPR's Kim Masters. Hi, Kim.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Good morning, John.

YDSTIE: Now, this is so important, because a lot of money is at stake for the networks, right?

MASTERS: Yeah, last year, the networks sold about $9 billion worth of advertising at the upfronts, so yes. The question is, can they match that this year?

YDSTIE: And what's the early outlook?

MASTERS: It's a very nervous year, you know? As it was, the upfronts have always been a delicate dance. The advertisers want to find the hot new shows and get in early, and the folks who bought into a show like Desperate Housewives, for example, before it caught on, start, you know, they end up looking very, very smart.

The networks want to sell for as much money as they can get, but they want to hold some spots back, so if they do have a surprise hit they won't end up having sold all of their advertising time too cheaply.

YDSTIE: So why is this such a nervous year?

MASTERS: Well, this year the advertisers are really starting to take a hard look at the Internet, and a lot of people think they'll hold money back from the usual television buys. So while spending at the upfronts barely inched up last year, spending for online advertising shot up by 28 percent. So that's what's making the networks nervous.

YDSTIE: So are the networks actually going to be looking at a big drop in ad revenue this year?

MASTERS: Well, no one knows, you know? Television veterans seem to think that they will still put their money into the advertising market for the networks. The--as one executive put it, the people who buy ad time for their clients have to put down billions of dollars on the broadcast networks just to make their marketing plans work. At the same time, television folks are starting to put more and more content online and experimenting with ways to keep up with technology and hang on to those ad dollars. And they're selling those ads online for a good price.

Now, it may be those dollars are going to come out of the network pocket when they start going online, but if that happens, the broadcast networks are hoping that cable will be the ones who are the losers.

The networks like to point out that they can still command the biggest audiences.

YDSTIE: So what's going to be the talk of the upfronts this year?

MASTERS: Well, in terms of shows, we don't know yet. The networks have announced some new shows, but they will show clips at the upfronts and try to present the new programs in a way that gets, you know, a good buzz going.

So what do we know? We know Ted Danson will be back on ABC with a comedy about an unraveling psychologist. He's a warhorse. On NBC, one show that caught our eye is supposed to take place behind the scenes of a show like Saturday Night Live, and that's from Aaron Sorkin, the man behind The West Wing, which wound up its entire run last night.

NBC also has a comedy from Saturday Night Live veteran Tina Fey in a similar kind of vein, possibly. So folks are wondering if there's room for two shows like that on one schedule. But NBC is the network most in need of help from new shows.

People also will be watching to see what the CW will do. And, as you might remember, that's the new network that is going to result from bring the WB and UPN together.

YDSTIE: Thanks, Kim. We'll be talking to you later in the week to hear more about those new shows.

MASTERS: Thank you, John.

YDSTIE: NPR's Kim Masters.

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