Upfront & In Your Face


With the tease of spring in the air, it’s once again that wacky time of the year when all the basic-cable networks host their annual upfront meetings and parties, in the quest to grab as much money as possible from Madison Avenue for their advertising advails.

While everything has changed in the annual television mating dance called the upfront — from the disappearance of young males from broadcast, the advent of TiVo and other such gizmos, to product placement ads and mega cross-platform deals — nothing significant has really changed at all.

Last year, it looked like momentum was really building toward fundamentally changing the way television time is bought and sold. Ad agencies and their clients fumed that something had to give.

While advertisers always moan about rising CPMs (costs per thousands) for lower ratings, buyers of ad time had a new beef. Last year they said the timing of the upfront made no sense because it did not mesh with the timing of their clients’ corporate budgets. They questioned why this stupid tradition still prevails. Largely, it’s because the automakers bring out their new models in the fall, to coincide with the new programming season.

But in these last few weeks of March, there is absolutely nothing going on to suggest that anything has really changed. The cable network upfront party season is in full tilt, with one network trying to outdo the next for bragging rights.

Actually, one could argue that there’s really no reason the upfront markets really need a fundamental shake-up. For whatever reason, it all seems to work out.

Programmers can knock Madison Avenue’s young media buyers, who, they claim, care more about the parties than the facts. But that’s an unfair knock. Madison Avenue has mastered the business of buying television quite well, as cable networks still cry that they are not getting their fair share of the pie.

The reality is that you and I are nothing but a demographic and psychographic to the wizards who run the numbers at the advertising agencies. And they are willing to pay whatever it takes to reach their target audiences for deodorant, prescription drugs, wrinkle-removal creams or whatever.

Actually, I’m pretty impressed that the shows I actually watch carry ads for products I buy or probably will in the future. I’m delighted to see yellow Lab Retrievers in all sorts of commercials for Cottonelle toilet paper and arthritis relief cream. I buy toilet paper, so why not support the future acting careers of my favorite breed?

And that extra-strength arthritis formula from Ben-Gay can be an aging yuppie’s best friend. The system has worked for me ever since I nagged my parents to buy me Barbie.

So going into this upfront season, my advice to those ad-supported networks is to tell a better story about your audience.