Even after a season of ratings declines for most programs, executives from the six broadcast networks said yesterday they had pulled in record amounts of money from advertisers in the so-called upfront sales market, sharing among them a total advertising take that reached $8 billion.
After a week of what numerous executives described as a furious frenzy of spending on prime-time shows, led by ABC's new powerhouse "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," virtually every network recorded increases over the money taken in last year, the only other time that advertisers were so eager to buy network commercials that the networks closed the market before the Memorial Day weekend.
"People knew the market was hot, and they wanted to get in fast and get their deals done," said Jon Nesvig, the president of sales for the Fox network, which is owned by the News Corporation.
"This upfront said again that advertisers still have to come to network television to establish and maintain brands," said Randy Falco, the president of the NBC Television Network.
The upfront season is vital to the finances of every network because during this time advertisers buy the bulk of the available commercials, up to 80 percent or more, in network prime-time shows.
Among the advertisers who supplied the most dollars were car companies, drug companies, movie companies and established retailers. Mr. Falco said retail spending might have been so heavy out of fear that electronic commerce companies were gaining ground.
But despite their widespread impact on network ad sales this season, dot-com companies were not heavy buyers in the upfront, the executives said. Some speculated that Internet companies would wait until later in the season to buy more selectively.
The overall figures for this upfront sales period exceeded even the robust expectations of most network and advertising industry executives who had forecast that the total commitment by advertisers might reach $7.7 billion this year, up from $7 billion last year.
The additional billion dollars of spending comes after a season when CBS's ratings were down slightly, NBC and Fox were down significantly, and Time Warner's part-time WB network was down sharply. UPN, the other part-time network, owned by Viacom, had strong ratings gains, based largely on its wrestling shows.
But ABC saw a huge ratings turnaround this season after putting "Millionaire," its hit game show, on three times a week. That ratings surge resulted this week in ABC's pulling in the most new money, $400 million to $500 million, according to varying estimates. Last year ABC took in about $1.84 billion.
ABC executives said they might reach $2.4 billion this year, an increase of about 30 percent.
ABC executives said the network officially passed NBC as the leading money winner of the upfront season this year. NBC disputed ABC's $2.4 billion figure and its claims of leadership. NBC said it pushed its total take up to about $2.35 billion, up from $2.1 billion to $2.2 billion last year.
Neutral executives, who labeled the dueling claims from NBC and ABC a meaningless sideshow solely about bragging rights, said the final tally might come down to more or less a tie between the two networks. Jamie Kellner, the president of WB said, "The fact is, ABC won the season every way you can, and they're adding the most money in the upfront."
But Mr. Falco noted that NBC, bolstered by a strong performance by its core of hit shows, especially in the last month, "was able to keep up the premium price" that it had been able to charge advertisers who wanted to be in on those hits, like "E.R." "Frasier" and a new favorite, "The West Wing."
NBC also benefits from having its best night on Thursday, when certain advertisers, like movie companies, most want to reach viewers.
Beyond the the dueling claims of supremacy for ABC and NBC, CBS was cited by numerous executives for making great strides in the upfront, thanks largely to a lineup of new shows for next fall that were very well received by advertisers. One ABC executive said, "The advertisers loved their shows, and they got paid well for them."
Without revealing specific figures, CBS executives said they were likely to be up 16 to 17 percent over last season. A network sales executive for a competing network put the CBS total at $1.6 billion, up from $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion last year.
"I think this was as good as we could have ever hoped for," said Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Television.
The Fox network struggled through what Mr. Nesvig acknowledged was "a tough year with a lot of series failure." Still, he said the network expected to finish with about $1.3 million in sales, up from $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion last year.
At WB, Mr. Kellner said its steep ratings declines had hurt in terms of the overall money the network took in. WB was the only network to show a decline, from about $450 million last year to about $425 million this year. But Mr. Kellner said the network also decided to save more of its commercial slots to sell later in the season. And, he said, advertisers were still enthusiastic about the young female audience WB attracts, the more so now because no other network is really concentrating heavily on that group.
As for UPN, it was the one network that had not concluded its business yesterday. And UPN's totals are diminished by the fact that it does not sell the commercials in its wrestling hit "Smackdown." Those are sold by the show's owner, the World Wrestling Federation.
Executives from the other networks estimated UPN would finish with about $150 million in sales for its other shows, up from about $120 million.
As for the overall impact of ABC's "Millionaire," Marvin Goldsmith, the president of sales for ABC, said it proved to be of enormous value not just for the advertising money committed directly to it but also for how ABC was able to use it in packages with other shows.
"I said we were going to ride that puppy and we did," he said.
Bill Carter, The New York Times. May 26, 2000.
Copyright © 2000 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.