TV networks aim to laugh to the bank at "upfronts"

Wed May 9, 2012 7:01pm EDT

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(Reuters) - Broadcast television networks are going for laughs to attract viewers, pitching new comedies at next week's annual "upfront" presentations to advertising buyers.

The big four U.S. broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC - are all coming to the television industry's annual rite with new comedies, a format that helps lower viewer age for older-skewing broadcast networks.

Though overtaken last year in total upfront dollars by insurgent cable networks like AMC Networks, each broadcaster still pulls in more dollars than any cable network.

Early indications from industry experts suggest that the big four broadcasters will see an increase in upfront revenue of between 2 percent to 4 percent for the 2012-13 TV season.

The big four plus the CW network should collect between $9.0 billion and $9.2 billion during the upfront season, according to Steve Lanzano, chief executive of TVB, a trade body for TV broadcasters.

Cable networks are expected to see upfront revenue increases of between 4 percent to 6 percent on average, according to analyst estimates.

Lanzano estimated the more numerous cable networks will ring up $9.6 billion to $9.8 billion in upfront sales.

CASH FOR COMEDY

This year the networks are looking to comedies rather than dramas to pull in the viewers. Forty-six comedies were in development for the season versus 35 dramas, according to Horizon Media.

While not all shows will reach the airwaves, Horizon analyst Brad Adgate said the popularity of sitcoms this year with the key 18-49 age group makes it likely more of these will get picked for 2012.

Last year only 15 comedies were added to network schedules.

Among this year's comedies are 'How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life', starring Sarah Chalke on Walt Disney's ABC; and CBS Corp has an untitled comedy from comedian Louis C.K.

Rebounding, featuring Will Forte and his friends on a pickup basketball team, will be on News Corp's FOX; and 'Save Me', about a woman (Anne Heche) recovering from a bad marriage, on Comcast Corp's NBC.

Broadcast television viewers typically skew older than cable or digital audiences. For instance, the average CBS viewer is north of 55 years old. Comedies tend to attract a younger demographic, making them attractive to broadcasters.

Comedies also typically have a better resale value than dramas. "Shows like 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld' are still running on various networks years after they were first put on air," Adgate said.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Barring an unforeseen buying spree, this year's upfront increase will be lower than the roughly 12 percent rise networks experienced last year. That is in part due to the economic outlook being less optimistic in recent weeks. In 2011, networks also opted to sell more advertising during the upfront period given the robust prices they were receiving.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley expect networks to hold back more inventory this year for the scatter market, when ads are sold ad hoc based on the strength of individual shows.

"We expect less willingness by advertisers to pay double-digit price increases, causing broadcast networks to hold back some inventory for the scatter market," said Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne.

Advertisers are operating with "very cautious optimism," said TVB's Lanzano, adding that people are getting used to the economy only growing between 1 percent and 2.5 percent a year.

Still, broadcast executives sounded upbeat ahead of the upfront sessions.

Bob Iger, CEO of ABC parent Walt Disney told Tuesday's earnings call: "We're anticipating a strong upfront marketplace. We're very impressed by the quality of our pilots."

CBS' always-optimistic CEO Les Moonves also predicted a "healthy" upfront selling season. Speaking to analysts on May 1, Moonves said "we led the (upfront) last year and we guarantee we will lead it again this year."

Analysts agree, predicting that CBS, television's highest-rated network, will have the strongest upfront season thanks to its robust ratings.

Barclays Capital projects CBS will see advertising rate increases of 10 percent, with Fox close behind at 9 percent. ABC and NBC are expected to be up 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Automakers are again expected to be among the biggest ad buyers driving sales this quarter.

Autos are "the one category everyone seems to agree is relatively healthy as car sales have been coming back from the bottom," said Mike Rosen, president of activation for media agency Starcom USA.

CABLE AND DIGITAL

Upfront discussions have been dominated in recent years by cable's rise, as aggregate viewer growth has outpaced traditional networks, although many broadcast network owners also own cable networks.

Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible expects cable networks will see their overall advertising rates increase by 10 percent to 15 percent, mainly due to their ability to withhold ad spots and the need to cover growth in programming costs.

Cable's steady rise will be tempered by declines in first-quarter ratings at some of the biggest networks, including Viacom's Nickelodeon and MTV.

Starcom's Rosen said advertisers may need to look down the list at smaller cable networks that may be showing growth.

Not unlike the past insurgency from cable networks, this upfront season also saw the online video industry make its first concerted formal pitch to the advertising industry via what they dubbed the "Newfronts."

Hulu, Google Inc's YouTube, AOL and Yahoo all held "newfront" events to show advertisers their own original shows around which to sell ad spots, playing up their potential to reach younger demographics more efficiently than their television counterparts.

Though online video advertising is growing rapidly - expected to jump 55 percent to $3.1 billion this year - it will be many years before these companies have a real impact, said Horizon Media's Adgate.

"I think they'll get more dollars than they did last year, but whatever dollars they get is not coming out of TV. That's still the strongest and best platform for most advertisers."

(Reporting By Yinka Adegoke and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Peter Lauria and Tim Dobbyn)

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