A Writers' Strike Benefit: Cancelled Upfronts

Media analyst Jack Myers posits: If the writers’ strike continues past December, the networks may have to scrap the “upfronts”, the annual dog-and-pony show/week-long bacchanal for ad agency execs. Traditionally, the networks spend most of April and May showing off their upcoming schedules to advertisers, who decide on the shows they like, then commit $17 to $18 billion in broadcast and cable ads.

But if the strike stretches into 2008, which at this point seems possible, there will be no new shows to show off. And no reason to have an upfront. Meyers sees this is a bad thing for the nets — it will blow away the concept of a fall season, make broadband and mobile content more attractive to consumers and advertisers, etc. Maybe.

But for the networks, the collapse of the upfront — and along with it, the way the TV networks make new shows —  is probably a good thing…
Both processes are stacked against the networks. They call the upfronts a “negotiation,” but it’s one where the TV networks assume all the risk: They either deliver the viewers they promised or pay make-goods to advertisers. If the networks happen to over-deliver on a rare hit show, advertisers don’t pay them any more. Last spring, the networks had to offer even more concessions, by agreeing to guarantee not just viewership of their shows, but of commercials that other people made.

Nor are the nets happy with the tradition of “pilot season”, which traditionally kicks into high gear around now. Every fall, thousands of pitches get whittled down to 100 pilots, all of which have to be made in the first three months of the next year, so that the nets can decide which ones they want to show off at upfronts. The rush to select and produce new shows creates an artificially frenzied atmosphere, and one that rarely produces good new shows.

Take away the upfront deadline and the nets could produce more pilots year-around. The one advantage that selling most of their inventory over a month gives the networks is visibility on ad budgets, but network sales execs say even that is overrated: Prior to the upfronts every major advertiser knows how much they want to spend, and where they want to spend it; the upfront haggling is really at the margins. Scrap the whole system, and let the nets sell more ads every quarter — or better yet, when they get new shows.

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