[opendtv] twilight of the dinosaurs

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  • Date: Mon, 16 May 2005 03:30:59 EDT

Glitzy 'Upfront' Week Masks
Changing Television Business
May 13, 2005 2:45 p.m.
The old-line broadcast networks and their advertisers will gather in New York 
next week to party like it's 1977.
Those were the days when the networks really did dominate popular culture 
--when "Roots" was on the air and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was taking a 
victory lap. Those days, of course, are long gone. But rituals persist. And the 
annual "upfront" is an especially creaky ritual that allows the networks and 
advertisers to pretend, for a moment, that the last quarter century never 
This anachronistic extravaganza actually works and is at least partly 
responsible for why the fortunes of the traditional networks aren't falling 
faster. Television people know how to put on a show, and starting Monday at 
like Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, they'll wine and dine and 
bedazzle ad buyers from all over, who show up every year. However hard-nosed, 
will go home with enough residual goodwill to not send all of their money to 
the Internet or cable just yet.
There will be much high-fiving about this past year's bright spots -- 
"Desperate Housewives," "American Idol," the continued strength of the "CSI" 
franchise. Next season's new shows will be unveiled with fanfare.
Truth is, it's been another mediocre year. No hit sitcoms yet again, flat ad 
revenue expected, flat ratings despite ABC's resurrection, the CBS News 
scandal. The familiar host of enemies still closes in -- mounting competition 
for ad 
dollars, new technologies and an audience that has been shrinking for 30 
years. Any notion of a Big Three of ABC, CBS and NBC -- or Four with Fox -- is 
mystifying to a kid as a rotary phone.
Perhaps the grimmest symbol is that "Monday Night Football" will defect to 
cable next year. The networks' argument used to be that only they had the deep 
pockets and expertise to produce truly top-shelf programming. But "MNF," the 
most expensive regular show on television, went to ESPN, which gets revenue 
subscribers as well as from advertisers (and possesses an agnostic owner, 
Disney, which owns cable and broadcast both so doesn't much care).
Nevertheless, the upfront seems frozen in amber. Its message: We are still 
the world's best entertainers selling the greatest advertising mass-market 
vehicle ever known to man. The presentations are slick, the stars on display, 
tables groaning with shrimp fresh and plump. Research whizzes produce positive 
ways to spin even the most pathetic ratings. Inside cracks are made about 
rival-network executives so everyone feels they're in the club. Last year, 
Chairman Les Moonves was finished talking about 18-49 demographics, CBS brought 
out The Who for a few songs. The boomer-intensive crowd flipped.
The actual "upfront market" itself -- when ad deals really get done -- is a 
tough negotiation that takes place over time and behind closed doors. And 
advertisers are questioning the value of big-network buying more than ever. But 
next week's festivities score valuable feel-good points.
All this opulence and razzle-dazzle tugs at the heartstrings of the 
advertising people as much as it does the network executives. Their world has 
too. The upfront also honors a vanishing business culture, when deals were 
made with clients on the golf course or over a steak dinner -- not with the 
meritocratic reason of digital data. The 30-second spot was the gold standard 
of advertising, not a multi-platform media-buying campaign crunched by the 
Common wisdom has it that the reason the old-line TV networks aren't toast by 
now is that as media options fragment, advertisers will crave the biggest 
audience more than ever, even as it shrivels. One can take or leave that 
argument. But the way the networks hang in there also has something to do with 
The Who 
and the shrimp.
Richard Turner has been covering the television business off and on since 
Write to Richard Turner at richard.turner@xxxxxxxx 
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