In TV dealmaking season, business may be slow

NEW YORK Fri May 9, 2008 2:40am EDT

Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of the CBS Corp., watches a video during his keynote address at the 2007 International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 9, 2007. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of the CBS Corp., watches a video during his keynote address at the 2007 International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 9, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Television is recovering from one labor strike and could face another, it's contending with digital video records, competing with new media, and trying to lock up advertising dollars in a rotten economy.

Next week, against this backdrop, CBS Corp's CBS, Walt Disney Co's ABC and New Corp's Fox will present their 2008-09 prime-time schedules and sell advertising for the season. General Electric Co's NBC introduced its schedule early, but will host an event.

The TV industry's troubles could mean a big slowdown to the deal-making that follows the schedule presentations, a stretch known as the "upfronts" when about $9 billion of commercial inventory has sold in recent years.

"A lot of corporations have not yet determined what the budgets are going to be that they put into the upfront marketplace," said Aaron Cohen, director of broadcast for media agency Horizon Media.

He said worries about the economy -- not to mention a possible actors strike -- could result in a noticeable amount of foot-dragging once negotiations start. Prices could also be hurt, possibly knocking $500 million off total sales, he said.

"This may well be one of the more elongated marketplaces: The shortest time frame has been three days, last year it took about a week, and I believe it will go a lot longer this year," Cohen added.

One certainty is this upfront week will be more bare-bones than those of the past, when networks would trot out stars like Jerry Seinfeld or Katie Couric and throw lavish cocktail parties at popular New York spots.

Network executives have repeatedly promised this year will be different, lower key and less expensive, a refrain that began when screenwriters picketed major TV and movie studios. In February, the two sides reached a deal to end the 14-week strike.

The Screen Actors Guild and studios, meanwhile, remain at odds over a contract for 120,000 film and TV actors to replace the one that expires June 30, raising fears of another possible Hollywood strike.

PRICES TO FOLLOW RATINGS, ECONOMY?

One result of last winter's screenwriters' strike was a shorter development season, so TV networks reduced the number of pilots they ordered to save time and money.

CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves recently said many of the network's new shows were made as presentations rather than pilots, which are the first full episode of a program.

Presentations, Moonves said, could be shot in five or six days rather than 10 or 12 for pilots, cost 50 percent less, and contain only what would be the key scenes of the story lines.

"To say we've saved tens of millions of dollars in development costs would be an accurate statement," he said.

Ad executives expressed only slight concern over signing TV commercial deals without seeing a full pilot.

"The interesting thing is for years we were able to view new pilots. but the failure rate for new shows was extremely high," said Donna Wolfe, chief negotiations officer for Universal McCann, an Interpublic Group agency.

Wolfe said an average of 70 new shows fail each year. "All the testing that the networks do, and all the pilots, it doesn't necessarily spell success," she said.

This year will also feature multimedia deals, which have become more common in recent years. Instead of signing a deal for just prime-time TV commercials, the contracts include a cable TV or Web component.

"Those deals, they take longer to create and develop and do them right," Stacey Shepatin, director of national broadcast for Interpublic's Hill Holliday, said of multimedia deals. By taking longer to work out, they extend the negotiating period, and they also complicate pricing.

Still, most media buyers expect prime-time prices to be under pressure given ratings declines and the weak economy, though few were willing to make detailed forecasts before negotiations have begun.

"Given ratings erosion and a recession, I would hope that pricing would come down accordingly," Shepatin said.

(Editing by Braden Reddall)