How U.S. Networks Woo Advertisers -- Lavishly ; Selling Commercial Time in Advance Involves Lots of Food and Glamour

Article excerpt

The upfronts, which began in the 1960s as a glorified trade show for television executives to sell advertising time in advance for their autumn TV schedules, have become ever more extravagant.

This week, the biggest U.S. television networks will battle it out for their share of the more than $60 billion in advertising dollars spent by the world's largest marketers on television commercials each year.

The networks' weapons? A sushi bar 40 feet, or more than 12 meters, long; a 125-foot star-studded red carpet; and 14 flavors of doughnuts (including candied ginger and hibiscus).

What began in the 1960s as a glorified trade show for television executives to woo marketers and sell advertising time upfront to support the coming autumn TV schedule has evolved into a party that can cost networks more than $1 million.

Today, the upfronts, as they are known, look more like Fashion Week than a business transaction. This week, celebrity D.J.'s will spin dance music in elaborate tents complete with lounges where marketers can sip specialty cocktails alongside stars.

The addition of social media means the upfronts are not just a tool for connecting to advertisers, either. Joe Earley, the Fox network's president of marketing and communications, compared the event to Comic-Con, the gathering for enthusiasts of comic books and related aspects of pop culture held annually in San Diego. That is, they are a first and "crucial" chance to tell the most devoted fans about the autumn TV season.

"It's a chance for us to show ourselves at our best, because God knows the reality of ratings will set in soon," said Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBCUniversal.

In the go-go 1990s, when advertising dollars poured into television, and networks did not face the same threats from the Internet or cable competitors, the upfronts "almost became a game to top what the other guy was doing and get the most buzz for your upfront," said Tim Brooks, a television historian.

Back then, NBC held its party in the sprawling ballroom of the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel in New York. Other parties took place at the Plaza Hotel. Presentations featured live animals and Broadway-style spectaculars, complete with confetti and chorus lines of dancers.

Indeed, as television evolved and networks had to fight harder for advertisers' attention, the lavishness of an upfront presentation became inversely linked to a network's fortunes (or lack thereof). What a network lacked in ratings, it tried to make up in passed hors d'oeuvres and party-favor panache.

Most of the big-ticket deals with advertisers were still struck in conference rooms over stale Chinese takeout, Mr. Brooks said. "It was a lot of money down the drain, but no one wanted to be the first one to stop doing it," he said of the upfront parties. "Incrementally, they all started to pull back."

The economic troubles of 2008 forced the networks to scale back even more. The iPod party favors disappeared, and the shrimp cocktail towers seemed a little skimpier, if they existed at all. ABC stopped holding a party after its presentations, held at Avery Fisher Hall, a concert auditorium at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Lately, the glamour has slowly returned, partly because of improving economic conditions and partly out of necessity. The big four U.S. broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC -- face more competition than ever. Cable channels and Web services like Hulu and YouTube hold their own elaborate upfronts and compete for the same advertising dollars. …