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Prime time is still the right time.
Early advertising sales by the broadcast networks have proved surprisingly strong, despite an economic slump, the writers' strike, and double-digit ratings declines for many shows this year.
"Broadcast TV is still the only game in town for the mass audience that advertisers want to reach," says Guy Rancourt, vice president and associate media director at Hill Holliday, a national group that buys advertising on behalf of corporate clients like CVS, Dunkin' Donuts, and Liberty Mutual.
That goes against predictions made by many in the industry in the weeks leading up to the ad sales known as the Upfronts, which largely wrapped up this week, that the market this year would be slower. The networks were expected to be forced to sell smaller percentages of their prime-time inventories because of a lack of demand.
Indeed, just a few weeks ago broadcast executives were struggling through Upfront presentations that were distinctly lacking in the glitz and glamour of previous years, with star-studded presentations and open-bar after parties falling by the wayside.
But sales for most of the networks are expected to rise from last year, thanks to a combination of increased ad rates and advertisers' willingness to buy more ad space earlier than last year.
NBC, which finished its Upfront sales last week, sold 80 percent of its prime-time ad inventory, up 3 to 4 percentage points over 2007, according to a spokeswoman. With that increase, ad sales for the network this year will total $1.9 billion, up $100 million over last year.
At ABC, which is still selling slots for prime-time sports programming and doesn't have a final tally, the network sold between 80 and 85 percent of its prime-time ad inventory, compared with 77 to 82 percent last year, and also expects a bump in overall sales from last year's $2.4 billion.
According to ad buyers and network spokespeople, advertisers were willing to buy more space than usual during network Upfront season because the "scatter" ad market—or ads sold from remaining inventory throughout the year—has been unusually expensive lately.
And, says one network representative, if the money shows up during Upfronts, the networks won't turn it away—especially since the economy may worsen, creating a tough environment for ad sales later in the year.
Fox declined to comment on Upfront sales, but it is widely expected to do better than last year's $1.9 billion, thanks in part to the 30 to 40 percent premiums levied on advertisers who will participate in the network's "Remote-Free TV" experiment this fall, which limits the number of companies allowed to hawk goods during two new dramas. CBS was predicted to match ABC's haul of about 2.5 billion.
The overall take for prime-time ad sales, including the CW, is expected to be $9.23 billion this year, up 1.2 percent over last year.
This year's apparent network Upfront motto? Die another day.


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