ABC has high hopes for "Body of Proof," a medical examiner drama… (Claire Folger / ABC )
Advertisers in the coming days will make billion-dollar bets on the TV networks' new fall schedules — and this time around, they actually like the script.
In recent years, with production costs soaring and profits falling, the broadcast networks scaled back prime-time comedies and dramas. To the dismay of advertisers hoping to place their products in a classier environment, the networks instead added cheaper reality shows and tried cost-saving gambits like shifting Jay Leno to prime time.
But when the broadcast networks unveiled their new fall lineups to advertisers in New York recently, expensive scripted dramas and comedies were back in vogue.
"There is more emphasis on scripted shows," said David Scardino, entertainment specialist at RPA, a Santa Monica advertising agency. "Networks are feeling a little more confident that there's money in the marketplace, and their schedules reflect that."
Call it post-recession programming.
Only three of the 38 new programs introduced by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the small CW network are unscripted, the industry term for contest and so-called reality shows. That signals a sharp retrenchment from last year, when the networks introduced eight unscripted shows, expanding the genre to fully one-third of prime-time programming, excluding football.
When the new TV season begins in September, 24% of the networks' prime-time schedule will be unscripted shows.
During the last two years, advertisers reined in spending, spooked by the bleak economy. On top of that, the 2007 screenwriters strike disrupted two seasons of development for scripted shows. Although a couple of gems were discovered, particularly this year's breakout hit "Undercover Boss" on CBS, there were far more clunkers, including "Momma's Boys" and the short-lived speed-dating show "Conveyor Belt of Love."
Advertisers were not smitten.
Network sales executives are now touting their new comedies and dramas as they begin selling commercial time for the upcoming TV season. Wall Street analysts predict a barn burner with networks booking 15% to 20% higher sales than the $7.94 billion they posted during last year's depressed market.
"What a difference a year makes," CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves told hundreds of advertisers who packed Carnegie Hall two weeks ago to preview CBS' fall schedule, which features the return of Tom Selleck in the family cop drama "Blue Bloods" and a remake of "Hawaii Five-O."
Indeed, TV advertising has roared back to life.
Ad research firm Kantar Media estimates network TV ad sales were up nearly 12% in the first quarter compared with the year-earlier period. Other media also climbed. Cable TV advertising was up 8%, and Spanish-language networks were able to hike their rates about 7%. Overall media spending, which includes TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet, increased for the first time in two years, Kantar said, rising 5% to $31 billion.
The TV "upfront" market — so named because the networks sell most of their commercial time in advance of the new season — is expected to be dramatically higher than 2009. Sales, which were off more than $1 billion last year, nonetheless may still be below 2008 levels.
"The upfront could be up 20%, but that's because it was down so much," said Donna Speciale, president of investment for the ad-buying firm MediaVest USA. "We are probably not even close to what it was two years ago in terms of dollar volume."
Last season, skittish advertisers, unsure which way the economy was heading, bought commercials closer to airdate — and ended up paying substantially higher rates than if they had bought time before the season began. This year, advertisers plan to lock in rates during the upfront market, Speciale said.
Still, Speciale and others do not expect reality shows to disappear. After all, "American Idol," "Survivor," "Dancing With the Stars" and "The Biggest Loser" continue to be among television's most popular shows.
"But the networks are being more choiceful and we are not seeing all the ones with 'content issues.' Advertisers want more family entertainment," Speciale said.
The networks have been bleeding viewers as audiences defect to cable channels, which have ramped up their original productions, and to other distractions such as Internet social networking sites and video games. And each network faces challenges in the coming season, which could temper advertisers' enthusiasm.
Fox, for example, is losing two big draws. The network's longtime spy thriller "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland, ended its run last week. And Simon Cowell, the razor-tongued British judge, will not be a regular next year on "American Idol," which has seen its ratings decline recently.