The broadcast networks and Madison Avenue may want to adopt “Honky Cat” as the official theme for the 2008-9 television season.
Why? A lyric that Elton John sings — “And oh, the change is gonna do me good” — encapsulates the attitude of many broadcasters and advertisers as they prepare for a different kind of upfront week, which begins on Monday.
The term upfront refers to the springtime previews offered by the networks of the prime-time programs they intend to broadcast in the fall. It also describes how the advertisers and their agencies decide to buy billions of dollars of commercial time ahead of the fall season.
Change is in the air because of the mess the 100-day writers’ strike made of the 2007-8 TV season, which ends this month. The strike scrambled the networks’ schedules, chased away millions of viewers and impeded the ability of advertisers to reach the audiences they wanted.
“The networks, and advertisers, realized that an upfront reflective of a business model born when there were three networks is unsustainable,” said John Rash, senior vice president and director for media negotiations at Campbell Mithun, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies. His reference was to the era when ABC, CBS and NBC were the sole choices for viewers.
After the strike was settled in February, the broadcasters resolved to rethink how the coming upfront week would proceed. As a result, the strike “had a major silver lining,” said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at the GroupM division of the WPP Group, which is composed of giant agencies like MediaCom and MindShare. The upfront week had turned into “a dog and pony show,” Mr. Scanzoni said, “missing the mark from what it was intended to be: speaking to advertisers and media agencies about what the networks’ strategies will be for the next season.”
“Plans were under way at the networks to make changes,” he added, “but the writers’ strike was the catalyst that forced the issue.”
Some changes will be cosmetic, among them shortening the presentations at sites in Midtown Manhattan like Carnegie Hall and canceling most of the lavish parties that typically followed.
For instance, CBS, part of the CBS Corporation, is replacing a fête at Tavern on the Green featuring series stars with a casual cocktail hour for reporters at a bar, Rosie O’Grady’s.
Some changes are more substantive. For example, the networks are ordering far fewer pilots, test episodes of new series that are expensive to produce. They also intend to broaden the presentations beyond what will be on TV, to include programming in new media like the Internet and mobile devices.
And the networks will expand their horizon from the usual nine-month season — running September through May, with most new series brought out en masse in the fall — to a year-round perspective, known in industry parlance as a 52-week season.
The senior executives at media agencies who help marketers determine which shows to buy commercials in — and which to avoid — welcome the changes. They say they would like the revamped upfront week to become normal, rather than entering the record books with an asterisk: temporary changes because of a strike-battered season.
“I’m hoping it’s not just a one-year thing,” said Chris Geraci, managing director for national broadcast at OMD, part of the Omnicom Group, because “the whole process was due for some change.”
Mr. Geraci embraced the idea of cutting back on pilots. “Instead of showing us clips of shows that may or may not look like that three months from now,” he said, the networks “should make better use of the time” they have during the presentations.
One method of doing that would be, as the networks intend, to include in their presentations alternatives to TV like broadband video and video on demand.
“We’re into a world where it’s not about TV, it’s about video,” said Charlie Rutman, chief executive for the North American operations of MPG, part of Havas, “which reflects consumer behavior.”
That means the networks “are not in the TV business, they’re in the video content business,” he added, “and they have to find ways to monetize it.”
Gail Ettinger, executive vice president and director for national broadcast at KSL Media, said: “The networks are selling in a 360-degree fashion because that’s the way people live these days. They have to be better content providers because advertisers are looking for something better.”
An end to “what we called the ‘traditional upfront’ ” would make sense, Ms. Ettinger said, because “there’s nothing about the media landscape that’s traditional anymore.”
The agency executives are also enthusiastic about the shift to the 52-week season, which was pioneered by Fox Broadcasting, part of the News Corporation, when it scheduled new series for summertime like “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Executives at NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric, upped the ante last month with plans for a 65-week season for NBC, which would run from May 2008 through August 2009.