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Upfronts on the down low

It used to be that you could judge if the advertising market was strong or weak by the type of beer the networks had at their upfront parties. If Heineken was on tap it meant things were looking up. If it was Budweiser, well ...

Next week we suggest bringing your own beer. While the networks have been scaling back on the grandiosity of their upfront dog-and-pony shows for the last few years, this time around the flash and glitz will be so dim it will seem as if the industry is incognito. Presentations to advertisers in advance of selling commercial inventory for the fall season once droned on for two-to-three hours, but now are pretty much kept to a clip of under 90 minutes. No complaints there.

The parties will be less grand as well. CBS, for example, is exiting tony Tavern on the Green in Central Park for Terminal Five, a locale on 11th Avenue and 56th Street whose main selling point may be its proximity to Larry Flynt's Hustler Club a block away. ABC's post-presentation party is for media buyers only at a Cheney-like undisclosed (to the press anyway) location. While Fox is still holding its party at Wollman Rink in Central Park, it has moved its presentation to a Monday school night from Thursday, where people tend to eat and booze as if it were Friday. That said, a Fox executive says there is not a cost-savings by moving the date. There will be more leftovers though.

Fewer executives and agents will be boarding jets from LAX to JFK in the next few days and those that are will be sitting in *gasp* coach instead of business class and taking cabs instead of town cars and anyone rubbernecking for stars will have more luck craning their necks upwards into the overcast Manhattan night sky.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the new economic reality this year is no William Morris party for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, back when the networks had a 90% share. The Monday night soiree--which until recently was held at classy "21" until it moved to the Four Seasons--always drew a fair amount of heavy hitters--every network president and studio chief as well an assortment of hangers-on. Sure, sorting out the merger with Endeavor probably made this shindig less of a priority, but if there was ever a time for a blow out this would appear to be it. 

From a business standpoint, this is the right message for the networks to send. Advertisers and media buyers are already hinting that this year's upfront take for the broadcast networks could be in the $7 billion range, a 20% drop from last year. The last thing these guys want to do is act like it's business as usual. Still, does this mean no shrimp?

--Joe Flint

 
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