Glitzy 'Upfront' Week Masks Changing Television Business By RICHARD TURNER THE WALL STREET JOURNAL 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 their advertisers to pretend, for a moment, that the last quarter century never happened. This anachronistic extravaganza actually works and is at least partly responsible for why the fortunes of the traditional networks aren't falling even faster. Television people know how to put on a show, and starting Monday at places 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, many 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 as 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 from 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, the 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, after 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 changed, 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 cool, 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 numbers. 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 1983. Write to Richard Turner at richard.turner@xxxxxxxx URL for this article: http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB111600860197733118,00.html ---------------------------------------------------------------------- You can UNSUBSCRIBE from the OpenDTV list in two ways: - Using the UNSUBSCRIBE command in your user configuration settings at FreeLists.org - By sending a message to: opendtv-request@xxxxxxxxxxxxx with the word unsubscribe in the subject line.