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Front is the operative word in Upfront week. Each May, the American television networks use a scattering of celebrities, a dash of pizazz and some traditional liquor-laden charm to push their year’s programme schedule offering on to journalists and, more importantly, advertisers. The aim is to extract billions of advertising dollars in upfront commitments, setting the mood and, crucially, price levels for the coming year. With last week’s presentations and parties over, the hard negotiations start.

Drawing a line under an ugly first three months will be tough – and recent hopeful hints by media companies on advertising trends may have more to do with them wanting to gee up big spenders than anything else. Advertising contracted across every medium in the first quarter, even online, says Bernstein Research, while traditional media advertising fell 18 per cent year on year, its eighth consecutive quarterly drop. Upfront spin may hold otherwise, but, realistically, less “down” is now the new “up” as media watchers search for stabilisation in the overall market.

True, paying up for TV time is the best option for advertisers wanting mass-market national appeal, whereas those targeting a niche or local audience can tap cheaper marketing-led or online strategies. Television, particularly cable, was the one segment that produced the odd bright spot in the first quarter. At least the medium – even for the broadcast networks – is not battling the same structural challenges that newspapers or radio face. But investors, who have pushed the S&P media index up 52 per cent since early March and advertising-heavy CBS up by 130 per cent, have got ahead of themselves. Even Barclays Capital, while predicting a second-half advertising fillip, sees upfront spend down 15 per cent for the big four broadcasters. Notwithstanding the industry’s shazam, advertisers have every reason to hold back on their upfront spend and buy ads cheaper later this year.

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