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Lifestyle

May 14, 2013

Sagging legacy networks seek a reversal of fortune

NEW YORK — This week, the streets of midtown Manhattan are again swarming with TV executives trying to woo ad buyers to their upcoming fall lineups with splashy presentations, star-packed cocktail parties and plentiful swag.

But there’s an air of urgency for the suits at the legacy networks — CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. They’ve been rocked by an ominous first: A basic cable program — AMC’s zombie apocalypse drama “The Walking Dead” — outperformed every scripted show on television this season in the advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic.

And zombies are the least of it. Competition is closing in from every corner and on every device. DVRs are frustrating advertisers by allowing viewers to skip ads. Netflix, Amazon and a host of online Web services are producing original fare. Aereo, mogul Barry Diller’s new service that allows broadcast signals to be watched on hand-held devices, poses another threat that the networks are trying to extinguish with litigation.

In this environment, TV executives at the annual upfronts that started yesterday must pitch their new shows after a season most notable for its failure to produce a single hit. Not surprisingly, most analysts expect tepid advance sales for prime-time commercials, with possibly zero growth over last year’s $9.2 billion. Meanwhile, analysts predict cable’s share of the pie will continue to grow, up as much as 7 percent, to an estimated $10 billion.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say this season was a tipping point,” said Matti Leshem, chief executive of the brand strategy company Protagonist. “If I were a network executive right now, I’d be very nervous, because we have finally reached a point where everyone is questioning the efficacy of television as a medium for reaching audiences, which is really what this is all about.”

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