New York Times

by David Carr

There we were last Tuesday afternoon at Lincoln Center, media buyers and journalists stapled in our seats for a long afternoon of tendentious speeches from ABC executives about the continued power of network television and the splendor of the shows that were about to unfurl before us.

“Television is the strongest advertising medium available today,” said Anne Sweeney, president of Disney/ABC Television Group, intoning a mantra that became wallpaper at last week’s upfronts, the annual presale presentation on the coming television season, while the president of entertainment, Stephen McPherson, suggested that recent programming problems were all about the writers’ strike, so a do-over seems in order.

The upfronts have always been a fatuous kabuki, with network executives appearing on stages decorated in vaguely Roman motifs to promulgate triumphalist narratives about network television’s efficacy even as the ground beneath them gives way.

ABC, with a few hits and good numbers in the demo, has a good story to tell, but the network television narrative in the last few years is generally one of smaller and smaller audiences while the price of advertising remains remarkably buoyant.

All advertising presentations about any medium involve more heat than light, but it was looking to be a long afternoon.

And then Jimmy Kimmel, ABC’s late-night motor mouth, walked on stage.

“Everything you heard today, everything you’ll hear this week, is complete” baloney, he said, adding: “These shows we’re so excited about? We’re going to cancel about 90 percent of them.”

Contrary to some reports, he killed. The room, stuffed to the gills with people who have been force-fed upfront claptrap for years, shook up and down with convulsive laughter. In years past, networks have been subjected to friendly fire from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Drew Carey and Conan O’Brien as a knowing nod to all the hyperbole, so everyone there was in on the joke. Mr. Kimmel pointed out that one of ABC’s hopefuls, “Shark Tank,” “has the word ‘tank’ right in the title.”

After doing a drive-by on Jay Leno, Mr. Kimmel took a breath and stated the bedrock essence of this annual ritual. “The truth is we’ve been lying to you. Every year we lie to you and every year you come back for more. It’s an abusive relationship. You don’t need an upfront. You need therapy.” The audience laughed, clapped — and then got back down to the business of seeing which shows they might buy.

So if what Mr. Kimmel said was both funny and true, what gives? Why, as network television has been sliced in half in terms of audience in the last few decades, do marketers still buy in?

First and foremost, because it works. At a time of ever-atomizing audiences, broadcast television’s slice may be smaller, but it is still the biggest slice. Think network television is washed up, overwhelmed by targeted and measureable ads on the Web? How is it that Apple, a tech company, and by the way, probably the most talented marketing company on the planet, is all over network television right now? And remember the movie industry is having a big year with big movies, using, yes, network television to drive people into theaters.

Network television advertising retains traction with both buyers and consumers because, in spite of the proliferation of screens, people are still watching more television than ever. A study done in March by Ball State University found that consumers in most age groups watch on average a little more than five hours of television a day.

And lest you think that everyone is DVR-ing and TiVo-ing their way across all that viewing untouched by ads, the study, done on behalf of the Council for Research Excellence, a forum created and financed by the Nielsen Company, found that television viewers were exposed to 72 minutes of ads and promos each day.

In tech quarters, the television is viewed as a Luddite appliance, but most relevant studies suggest that 99 percent of the video watched in the United States is still done within the four corners of a television screen.

John Rash, director of media analysis at the advertising agency Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, attended the upfronts last week.

“In the law of unintended consequences, the networks’ audience erosion has become both a challenge and an opportunity,” he said. “They don’t have as big an audience to sell, but their remaining share is that much more dominant over the fragmented media landscape.”

Got that? A guy who is merely short is king in the land of dwarves, and so networks remain a must-buy for a certain kind of client.

“If you are a big film or a quick-serve restaurant, you pick your window and then you have to build your reach quickly in five days and that is accomplished by buying network time,” said Irwin Gotlieb, global chief executive of GroupM, the parent company of WPP’s various media agencies.

Each of the networks, besieged by premature reports of their own death, chanted over and over in their presentations last week about the continuing vitality of the broadcast model. “That’s the message of the week,” Page Thompson, president of the Omnicom Media Group North America, told TV Week. “No one’s arguing that. We’re arguing about the cost.”

So if networks come at such a dear price, why does the always-predicted demise of the upfront markets never arrive?

“Part of what you are seeing is a comfort relationship,” said Brad Adgate, director of research at Horizon Media. “There is a relationship with buyers that has developed over decades and there remains an attitude that if it isn’t broken completely, why fix it?”

So entropy and habit are certainly in play. Media buyers can’t be blamed for failing to resist a week of upfront events that have the qualities of a séance, replete with conjurings.

And if they still had doubts, Mr. Kimmel was there for them: “I think all our shows are going to work this year. I really do,” he said, pausing for a full beat. “I don’t, really.” Funny stuff, and Mr. Kimmel and the network he works for are laughing all the way to the bank.