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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is the President of Intermat, Inc., a consulting practice that specializes in the intersection of media, technology and marketing. For two years, he produced the Emmys on the Web and supervised web related activities for the Academy, including for the 50th Anniversary year of the Emmy Awards. In addition to its consulting engagements, Intermat recently sold METEOR’S TALE, an unpublished novel by Michael O’Rourke, to Animal Planet for development as a television movie. Visit his web site at

What is an upfront?

It is a time, in spring, when the buyers and sellers of national advertising
time engage in either irrational exuberance or irrational despair. During a
frenzy of meetings over a week or so, billions of dollars worth of national
television advertising is exchanged and the tone of the ad market is set for
another year.

It's May 29th. Last week, the most robust upfront ad sales market occurred for broadcast television in the history of the medium. It was so strong, well north of nine billion dollars, that most people who work in the business were confounded. The ad market is stronger than the economy in general. Advertising continues to defy the gravity of the general economy, which is growing at something like 2% while network’s cpms [cost per thousands and the measure by which money changes hands] went up by 15 – 20+ %.

It was so good it is making media analysts a little uneasy. Where is all
the upfront money coming from? No one knows, for sure. What seems to be happening is that advertising, which normally declines in a down economy, has grown in this downturn as marketers seem to have decided to keep hawking their goods, even when folks seem less inclined to spend.

The market this week for cable and syndication may well have been shaped by the dreariness of the weekend. After a market that left almost everyone I know breathless, all the executives wanted was a relaxing weekend in the
sun. What they got was a fall like weekend, with rain and cold, which left
them cranky when they came back Tuesday. It is a mood that has affected the speed with which they are opening their checkbooks. And even though the sun has come out, some sobriety has returned.

But the absolutely amazing thing is that by the time all this upfront frenzy
is finished something like twenty plus BILLION dollars will have been
funneled into national television advertising in the United States.

The advertising pot, while larger, is being spread over more networks. Once
there were three broadcast networks and now there are at least six. There
are god alone knows how many cable networks…

Does it matter? Yes. Television is a business of advertising. We produce
television programs largely as a place into which we can insert advertising.
The health of the ad market indicates there should be money available for
programming. Yet every programmer I know is pleading a degree of poverty.

And while the irrational exuberance of last week has been replaced this week by a slightly more tempered attitude toward cable and syndication, the volume and price increases are still…robust.

To justify that volume and velocity of money there is a need for ratings.

Chasing ratings, which are based on the habits of something like five to six
thousand people who have Nielsen Meters, is the reason we have things like Fear Factor and The Bachelor, Survivor and its many variations; Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? They grab eyeballs, burn brightly and disappear.

One of reality television’s most attractive features is that it is less
expensive than drama or comedy. However, the rapid wear out of network
reality has had some network executives planning more drama and comedy
development in hopes of having something that can last longer than six weeks before it fades away. Not to mention wanting something that can be repeated because who wants to re-watch episodes of The Bachelor?

Feeding the machine has made many a development executive dizzy.

All of these decisions and choices are made as reflections of the viewing
habits of the 5,000 or so Nielsen people meters. Programming decisions are
made in an effort to make those few thousand homes tune in because their
tune in dials up dollars for the networks.

The viewing fate of the American public is in the hands of a few thousand
folks who have no real idea, I suspect, of the power they wield. Each of
those households is directly affecting millions of dollars worth of
advertising dollars. Their viewing habits are directing my available
viewing choices.

Does this make sense? I don’t think so.