What Are the Upfronts?

Hey, screenwriters—

As many of you know, last week was television’s biggest week of the year… the New York upfronts… and I’ve gotten several emails discussing, speculating, and asking about this year’s announcements.  Several people asked exactly what the upfronts are, so I wanted to take a moment and discuss… what exactly are the upfronts, and why are they so important to television?

“Upfront week” is usually held mid-May, and—on the surface—it’s the week when all the broadcast networks descend on New York to hold massive presentations at which they announce their fall schedules to advertisers and press.  They unveil new shows, returning shows, midseason possibilities, etc.  

Traditionally, these presentations are multi-million-dollar stage shows, complete with fun segments like special short films, spoofs of TV shows, etc.  A couple years ago, FOX shot a short “24” parody starring Keifer Sutherland, and NBC has done “E.R.” spoofs.  Marc Cherry, creator of “Desperate Housewives,” once did a choreographed musical number with the women of Wisteria Lane, and last year CW had president Dawn Ostroff snuggle on stage with a live panther to announce the pick-up of “Life Is Wild” (which turned out to be one of the worst-performing and quickly canceled new shows of the season).  Most networks also trot out big-name TV stars, casts, showrunners, and producers of their shows.

After the presentation, which usually lasts 1-2 hours, everyone heads to a restaurant or giant tent for a gala party where the media and advertisers can rub elbows with TV big-wigs and actors.

Click HERE to read TV Week’s post-upfront report on all the shows each network picked up.

This year’s upfront presentations were a bit different than in years past.  Thanks to the writers strike, many networks hadn’t finished all their pilots or decided what new series would definitely be debuting.  Also, because networks took financial hits because of the work stoppage, many scaled back the extravagance of their network presentations, shortening presentations and/or eliminating the after party.  NBC took an interesting tack; rather than holding a traditional stage show which spotlighted just their primetime TV schedule, they created “The NBC Experience,” an “interactive” carnival-like event that illuminated the many different platforms on which NBC content plays: TV, mobile phones, the Internet, etc.  Guests could screen TV shows, take photos with stars, play games with the American Gladiators, eat food from Bravo’s Top Chefs, etc.

Broadcast networks aren’t the only distributors to hold upfront presentations.  Cable networks also hold upfronts, but rather than holding them in May, with the broadcasters that dominate most of television, cable channels and kids networks hold them a few weeks earlier, usually in March and April.  Cable upfronts also don’t tend to be as gargantuan and flashy as the broadcast nets’.  In fact, cable upfronts are often as simple as network executives meeting with individual ad buyers and presenting their schedules face to face (which many feel is a more intimate, effective way of doing business).  Also, as online entertainment continues to grow, many Internet production companies and distributors are beginning to hold upfronts.  Broadband Enterprises and MSN both held upfront presentations this year, announcing their own online shows and series.

Here’s the interesting thing about TV upfronts…  The term “upfront” itself is actually a bit of a misnomer.  People usually use it to refer to the “upfront announcements,” or presentations.  But the truth is, the announcements and presentations are simply the kick-off for the upfront buying season, which is the most important part of the upfront process.  Here’s why…

As you know, broadcast networks (and many cable networks) make most of their money by selling advertisements in their TV shows.  Networks’ ad salespeople sell ads in their TV shows year-round… but during the upfront buying season, which begins with the May announcements and ends just before the fall season begins, they offer advertisers special incentives to buy ads.  They may sell ads at reduced rates or guarantee shows will draw audiences of a certain size.  

In other words, the upfront buying season is like a GIANT BARGAIN PRE-SALE… and it’s where broadcast networks sell up to 90 percent of the coming year’s ad spots.

Ad spots that aren’t sold during the upfront season are sold on the “scatter market,” which means they’re sold a la carte throughout the year.  Ads sold on the scatter market are not sold with the same incentives given to buyers during the upfront season.  In fact, the cost of an ad in a particular show can rise or fall as the year progresses, depending on how popular the show is and how high demand is to advertise in it.  Ads in super-popular shows obviously cost much more (“American Idol” sold ads for a million dollars this year), and less popular shows cost less.  The most expensive scripted show to advertise in is “Grey’s Anatomy,” which—last year—charged over $400,000 per ad spot.  The least expensive shows last year were the CW’s comedies—“Everybody Hates Chris,” “Aliens in America,” “Girlfriends,” etc.—which charged less than $50,000 per ad spot.

The upfront buying season consists of intense jockeying and negotiating between networks selling ads and advertisers buying them.  Networks use tactics to try and boost ad prices, while advertisers try to get the best deal possible.  And because everything is negotiated, different advertisers often end up paying different prices for the exact same spots within a show!  Networks also must strategize how many ad spots in each show to try and sell during the upfront season.  For instance, if they have a new show they believe will be a humongous hit, but advertisers aren’t giving them the dollars they think the show is worth, they may opt NOT to sell many ads during the upfronts… then, when the show becomes a smash hit that fall ad buyers are clamoring to put their ads in it, the network can jack up the price.

Of course, as new mediums bubble up and Tv’s business models change, so will the process of buying and selling ads.  I don’t think the upfront buying season is going away any time soon—and even though cable and the Internet are eroding broadcasters’ holds on audiences, broadcast networks are still the indisputable big dogs of the TV landscape (at least for now)—but we are starting to see the ad buying/selling process evolve.

Some places have experimented with reverting to TV’s old model of having advertisement-free shows which are simply sponsored by a single company, brand, or product.  FOX cut out half the commercials in its upcoming sci-fi series, “Dollhouse” and “Fringe,” allowing them to have less “clutter” in each episode and charge more for ad spots.  Other advertisers and networks are bypassing traditional ads altogether in favor of “product integration,” where an advertiser pays a show, or its network, to integrate a particular brand or produc
t into the show’s story.  This is different than mere “product placement,” where we simply see a character drinking a Coke or eating a Snickers.  Production integration involves making the product a legitimate part of the story, like when Gabrielle, on “Desperate Housewives,” gets a job as a model for the Buick Lacrosse.

It’ll be interesting to see how TV advertising changes over the next few years… especially as it affects TV’s creative processes.

For now, however, I hope that was a helpful crash-course on the world of TV advertising.  And keep the questions and comments coming!  You can post them in the comment section below, or email me at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com.

Talk to you soon!

— Chad

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2 thoughts on “What Are the Upfronts?

  1. T0ny St4rk

    While I completely agree with your thoughts and reasoning, found your examples to be applicable and insightful, and overall thoroughly enjoyed the read, I can’t help but wonder how you ended up so outside of the traditional, dyed-in-the-wool archetype of blogging about the upfronts. When people read a blog about the upfronts, they want to be able to relate to the upfronts and put themselves into the upfronts’ shoes for a while. Disappointing. Why do you hate America?

    I’m having your mug painted on the business end of every Jericho from now on. Hope you’re happy.

    Peace out.

  2. Where's Izzy?

    What a nice, solid overview of the upfronts. Now I have a place to point my non-industry friends toward when they ask me what all the hubbub is about with these "upfront" things. Not that I have non-industry friends. Or even friends in general. But this’ll be nice to back-pocket. Just in case.

    There’s some financial wrangling going on that leads to the ratio of what gets sold upfront vs. what gets sold in the scatter market later on, and the connotation associated with giant bargain pre-sales (at least on the coasts; take THAT everyone in Indiana) might be a little misleading, but it paints the picture closely enough that I’m probably not going to bother to comment on it at all in this response. Wait. Crap.

    Thanks, bro!

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