NEW YORK — At 3:30 p.m. on May 15, hundreds of advertisers and agency executives are drinking NBC's beer and munching on NBC's sushi, but it's clear that many aren't buying into NBC's new fall shows.
They've just sat through a two-hour presentation of the network's fall strategy and the reviews are instantaneously lackluster. Plus, they gripe, there's no music at the party, and the stars of "The West Wing"--which drew a highly unusual standing ovation during the presentation--are nowhere to be found. Not a good way to start Upfront Week, the four-day cram session at which ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, the WB and Pax vie to woo advertisers to their fall schedules and, ultimately, a bigger share of the $8-billion advertising pie to be split in a buying frenzy the following week.
But who are all these people anyway? Predominantly young and--from their solid ties and cool sunglasses and micro cell phones--obviously hip, how can they even come close to guessing what will appeal to the masses of Middle America? And will sushi and beer and a song-and-dance routine by the stars of "Will & Grace" actually make a difference in how they spend their money?
Mike Greco is one of the young people making the rounds. The 29-year-old, whose title is manager of broadcast research for Optimum Media Direction USA--the media buying and research umbrella for some of Madison Avenue's largest ad agencies, BBDO, DDB and TBWA/Chiat/Day--is assigned, with his team, to assess every show on every network, well over 100 in all. That means predicting, with the help of computer software that tracks such arcana as how well sitcoms have fared over the years in specific time slots, how each show will perform in the coming year in terms of audience share, among every age group from kids to adults 50 and older. And he has to have his assessments--which will be used by the agencies' media buyers as they negotiate ad rates with the networks on behalf of clients like Pepsi and Visa--ready to go by the end of the week. And he has to prepare them in between the two-hour-plus network sessions at locations from the Metropolitan Opera House to Radio City Music Hall, and the star-filled parties following.
It's a high-stakes game that is played out very quickly. Agencies buy packages of ads for their clients spread out over a multitude of shows. If the agency guesses wrong, it might lose out on getting those ads into what is known as the "rich mix," a spot on the hottest shows. If an agency overestimates a show's popularity, its clients might end up having to take makeup ads in other programs, throwing off a whole media plan.
For the networks, there are risks too. Last season, many agencies underestimated the CBS show "Judging Amy," one of the year's top-rated new dramas, miscalculating its appeal in favor of the ABC drama "Once and Again," which came with a hip pedigree--its producers used to do "thirtysomething"--and a younger, hipper cast. With most of the ad time for the show sold in advance (or "upfront," giving Upfront Week its name), networks don't earn what they could on shows that are underestimated. Indeed, CBS has long griped that the relatively young age of the advertising community leads to a bias against CBS' older-skewing shows in favor of places like the youth-oriented WB.
Greco's taste runs to Fox's "The Simpsons"--his favorite show--and the WB's "Dawson's Creek" and ABC's "Monday Night Football." Still, last year, he had a strong track record: Of six shows he thought would make it to a second year, five did, including "The West Wing." The only show he badly overestimated was a half-hour version of Fox's "Ally McBeal." Like most of the ad community, he didn't foresee the strength of "Judging Amy," although he had it down as a possible contender.
Coming out of NBC's presentation, Greco likes--some might say predictably for a guy his age--a new sitcom starring Steven Weber (who starred on the popular NBC sitcom "Wings"). "The jokes actually made me laugh," he says, as he and colleagues and friends from other agencies debate how the shows look (they'll get full pilots later in the week). And with shows increasingly targeted to niche demographics, the group consensus of these young researchers and buyers becomes more important as they attempt to judge shows not aimed at them.
But just as a good clip can get talked up at the post-presentation parties, so too can a bad clip have a negative effect. NBC's new sitcom starring "Seinfeld's" Michael Richards comes with the built-in promotability of its star--but once it played, many advertisers left rolling their eyes, disappointed. (NBC executives were apparently equally disappointed; the show is being completely retooled before it airs.)
"If people really like a new show, if it comes off well in the presentation, it will help build demand," and higher ad prices, says Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox.