Let the Upfront Games Begin

CBS' Les Moonves eyes double-digit upfront hikes

Les Moonves on Wednesday told investors that CBS is gearing up for another lucrative upfront market, predicting that the top-rated broadcast network will land double-digit pricing increases versus its already high 2011-12 rates.

Speaking at the Deutsche Bank 20th Annual Media and Telecom Conference, a Moonves gently chided analyst Doug Mitchelson, who suggested that CBS’ elevated GRPs had led to a decline in first-quarter scatter pricing.

“You spoke to the [media buyers] first, which is always the wrong thing to do, because they always lowball you,” Moonves said. “We’re going to get double-digit increases in the upfront. There you have it—let the games begin.”

In the absence of  any confirmed client budgets, Moonves is the first television executive to call his shot in advance of the 2012-13 bazaar. As Moonves reminded Mitchelson, the CBS sales team made good on the prediction he made a year ago.

“I said [we’d get increases in the] low- to mid-teens, and we ended up 13 to 14 percent,” Moonves recalled. “You doubted me then; don’t doubt me again.”

Always a reliable barometer of CBS’ marketplace prospects, Moonves clearly has much to be bullish about as the earth begins to heave its way toward spring. Through the first 23 weeks of the TV season, CBS is tops among total viewers, with an average prime time draw of 12.2 million, and is hot on the heels of Fox in the all-important 18-49 demo.

Per Nielsen’s blended live-plus-seven-day/live-plus-same-day ratings data, CBS is averaging a 3.1 in the 18-49 demo, up 3 percent versus the year-ago period. Fox is drawing a 3.3 rating, which marks a 6 percent decline from this time in 2011.

Moonves noted that the scatter market has picked up after demand slowed in the fourth quarter of 2011, adding that CBS enjoys the significant advantage of not being burdened with makegoods.

Other media execs, including News Corp. COO Chase Carey and Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, declined to discuss their own upfront expectations, saying that it was impossible to make any long-term projections at this point in time.

CBS is expected to unveil its fall lineup on May 16 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

As was the case a year ago, the CBS upfront presentation will be light on new shows. Because two of CBS’ six freshman series are bona fide hits (2 Broke Girls, Person of Interest) and another is trending above a 2.0 in the demo (Unforgettable), there simply isn’t much room on the docket for new material.

“We’ve proposed that the U.S. government add an eighth day to the calendar so we can program another night, but that’s not going to work,” Moonves joked. “But out of a 22-hour schedule, we maybe have an hour and a half of weakness. That’s a pretty good position to be in.”

CBS will shutter one of its long-in-the-tooth procedurals to carve out an hour for new programming, and while Moonves did not identify which series would get the ax, likely candidates are CSI: Miami, CSI: New York and Rules of Engagement

“To use a sports term, we’re going to take a player off the field a year early rather than a year late,” Moonves said.

All told, CBS is expected to introduce just a handful of new series during its spring fling with advertisers, projects selected from a light load of 16 scripted pilots. Comedies and dramas are evenly split.

“If I tell you we’re only going to do three or four new shows, I don’t need to do 22 [pilots],” Moonves said. “Throwing money at programming is not necessarily the most successful strategy.”

At last count, ABC has ordered the greatest number of pilots (27), with NBC a close second (25). Fox has invested in 17 scripts.

If Moonves’ Magic Eight Ball is anything to go by, CBS can expect another banner upfront sell-off. Last year the network took in about $2.65 billion in early commitments, an increase of some $150 million versus the 2010-11 bazaar.

However the marketplace shakes out, expect CBS to remain faithful to its proprietary blend of comedies and procedurals. “I think there are probably enough singing competitions on the air,” Moonves said, adding that the beauty of the procedural lies in its syndication-friendly format.

“Procedural dramas have delivered us billions and billions of dollars in postnetwork run revenue. There’s a huge afterlife for procedurals,” Moonves said. “Fifty years from now, people will be watching CSI in syndication, and somebody at CBS will be getting paid for that. Hopefully, I’m not still here doing this job, but that’s the world we live in, and we’re pretty pleased with how we’re playing the game.”