In-Person Deals Keep Upfronts Afloat in Uncertain TV Industry

By Michael O'Connell May 18, 2009, 1:56 PM EDT

For its New York "infront" on May 4 and 5, NBC executives spoke with media buyers about the upcoming year from the network's Rockefeller Center headquarters and the Saturday Night Live studio.

Photo: © NBC Universal Inc.

Today marks the start of the television networks’ annual Upfront Week, and though the industry has seen significant changes over the last few years, the practice of courting advertisers in person doesn’t look to be going anywhere.

“As long as media agencies and their clients are interested in gathering in one place for one week, the upfronts will continue to happen and be very important to this industry,” said Rick Haskins, executive vice president of marketing and brand strategy at the CW, who returned the network to its traditional Thursday presentation after an experiment with a cocktail party last year. “Going back to the old format just felt like the right thing to do this year.”

Haskins also knows that although the upfronts may be evolving for the insiders, they’re becoming more of an event for TV audiences and consumers at home. Blogs and online fan communities have expanded coverage of the upfronts well beyond the trades. “We’re in a time where what you hear at a meeting one minute will be out in the real world the next,” Haskins said. “We want it to come from us, so we’ll be tweeting during the presentation and packaging the same content for the Web and TV as soon as we make the announcements.”

NBC, which has seen the most dramatic shift from tradition, perhaps has emphasized connecting with groups and individuals most of all. Nixing the concert hall announcements for smaller meetings and presentations in studio spaces and conference rooms in markets across the country leading up to its official scheduling announcement this week, the network’s upfront agenda now focuses on more personal business entertaining.

The network still emphasizes entertainment experiences—just on a much smaller scale. The Los Angeles leg of the network's touring “infront” brought in L.A.-based actors from newly announced series at Universal Studios Hollywood. In New York the network invited small groups of media buyers and clients to the Saturday Night Live stage for discussions that included remarks from newly minted NBC poster boy Jimmy Fallon.

Still, NBC’s inclusion of talent in its presentations still pales in comparison to the amount of actors it once brought in for the upfronts. Another network, ABC, has almost abandoned the practice altogether, only trotting out late-night host Jimmy Kimmel for modest presentations the last two years. But for the CW, putting together one large show in New York, complete with dozens of cast members from new and returning series, makes the most sense. “Everybody's business model is different,” Haskins said, “but packaging series previews and young stars into an upfront program is part of the image we have to sell.”

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