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‘Upfronts’ showcase TV’s changes, dilemmas

Kai Ryssdal May 17, 2007
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‘Upfronts’ showcase TV’s changes, dilemmas

Kai Ryssdal May 17, 2007
HTML EMBED:
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KAI RYSSDAL: Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City can seat 2,700 people. Two thousand, seven hundred thirty-eight to be precise. But when we wanted to talk to a television writer about the big network ad pitches happening there this week, we had to track him down in Chicago, wWhere he was watching what are called the upfronts on closed circuit. That’s because Avery Fisher Hall was jammed to the rafters with ad buyers

Aaron Barnhart is the TV critic at the Kansas City Star. Hi Aaron, good to talk to you again.

AARON BARNHART: Yeah, likewise, Kai.

RYSSDAL: Let’s get to the bottom line first, I suppose as it were, and talk about how much money the networks are thinking to get. Last year, it was just shy of $9 billion in the upfronts. Are they gonna get close to that this year, top it, what are they gonna do?

BARNHART: They might very well get the $9 billion that they have traditionally gotten in recent years — I think it peaked at around $9.5 billion couple years ago. But the other question is, when are they gonna get the money? See, these upfronts used to be sort of the feeding frenzy kind of at Sea World, when they throw chum in the pool. You know, as soon as these presentations, these big song-and-dance affairs in New York got done, they got down to brass tax and everybody, you know, was trying to sign deals as quickly as possible. Now what you’re seeing is that the upfronts are dragging on and on throughout the summer. Last year, the upfront was a very protractive process, and all indications are it’s gonna be another long summer again.

RYSSDAL: All right. Well even though you can’t be there, Aaron, these are by all accounts sort of a tough upfront for the networks. What are they dealing with this year that’s sort of different than in the past?

BARNHART: There’s so much now more in play, there’re more variables out there. We have talked about DVR usage in the past, the people using time-shifting machines to skip past commercials. There’s also been, in the past year, two new ratings that have come out from Nielsen, the ratings company.

One of the metrics is called “Live Plus.” I’ll just give you one number here: 32 percent. This is the percentage by which the audience, for one show, NBC’s “The Office,” jumped between the time that the show airs and three days later, when all of the time-shifters had been able to watch the show. So the networks want credit for all that extra viewing that goes on. The advertisers respond by pointing to another metric that Nielsen has come up with called commercial ratings — the half-hour or hour-long program rating for a show, minus all that pesky program content that gets in the way of the commercials. And the advertisers are saying, “Look, you know, it’s great that people have these DVRs, and that broadcast shows are the most popular things recorded on DVRs, but we want to use these commercial ratings as a proof of performance that the people who are watching your shows are also sticking around for the commercials.” And that’s gonna make negotiations awfully hairy this summer.

RYSSDAL: Aaron, let me move away from the technology and from Madison Avenue and the advertising and talk about the actual programming here for a second. You know, some big hits, like “Lost” and “24” are seeing declining audiences — “Survivor” had its lowest rating in forever. How are they changing the programming?

BARNHART: Well, you named it, Kai. The trend for serial dramas is DOA. There are not gonna be any new serial thrillers or dramas this fall and probably for a long time. The other big change that you’re gonna see is in scheduling. We are starting to see, finally, the end of the hiatus — this long vacation that many popular programs take because the networks are trying to stretch a 22-episode order over a 39-week broadcast season. And so now you’re seeing programs like “Law and Order,” for instance, are gonna come back at midseason. These are programs now where the networks have figured out, “If we put it on and just keep it on — and don’t show reruns and don’t take it off the air — that’s the way to hold on to the audience.”

RYSSDAL: Aaron Barnhart is the television critic for the Kansas City Star. He runs a website called TVBarn.com. We got to him in Chicago ’cause there wasn’t enough room for him in the upfronts at New York. Aaron, thanks a lot.

BARNHART: Thank you, Kai.

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