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The shrimp flows at the upfronts, but will the dollars?

May 18, 2010 |  7:00 am

Fox Broadcasting pulled out all the stops when it unveiled its fall television schedule to advertisers Monday in New York.

Not only did the network fill the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan's Upper West Side with media buyers, but it also had enough shrimp and sushi to feed a small country at its post-presentation party in Central Park. 

Fox and the other broadcast networks are all feeling pretty optimistic about how they'll do when they start selling commercial inventory for the 2010-11 television season in what is known as the upfront market. It's called that because the networks try to sell the bulk of their commercial inventory upfront before the new shows go on the air. Typically, the networks like to sell north of 80% of their inventory and leave the rest to unload during the TV season in what is known as the scatter market.

It won't take much to improve on last year's upfront. The market, which when strong closes in a matter of days, dragged on until early August, and when it was done the five major broadcast networks -- CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and CW, saw sales volume fall 15% to 20% from 2008. In terms of dollars, the five networks took in $7.5 billion, compared with more than $9 billion two years ago.

This year the networks may crack the $9-billion mark. The scatter market has been strong, and advertisers may opt to bet big in the upfront rather than risk getting burned in the scatter market.

"The conversations this year are obviously totally different than they were last year," said Jon Nesvig, Fox's head of sales. Nesvig said he expected automotive spending to be up, along with spending by telephone companies needing to hype the latest hand-held devices. "There have been a lot of discussions, and we know there’s going to be more money in the upfront." 

While there may be more money in the upfront, that doesn't mean the overall ad spending will increase. 

"I think the leverage is still with the advertisers because of fragmentation," said Michael Kassan, an advertising veteran who currently runs consulting and marketing firm MediaLink, whose clients include AT&T, General Electric and Unilever. Kassan thinks the networks will regain some ground, but maybe not as much as they hope.

-- Joe Flint