In swift talks, TV networks win big ad price rises

By Paul Thomasch

NEW YORK (Reuters) – ABC, NBC and CBS are on the brink of wrapping up their advanced television advertising sales, winning double-digit price increases nearly across the board in one of the quickest selling periods on record.

While Fox has already polished off its sales, the other three big broadcast networks could finish their deals by Thursday, according to industry sources. CBS should emerge with the biggest increases for its prime-time shows, with rates up between 14 percent and 15 percent from a year ago, the sources said.

Stronger prices were widely expected during this year’s upfront — so called because the dealmaking is completed months before the fall TV season gets underway — in light of fatter corporate marketing budgets and a general rebound in advertising spending.

Still, there were doubts the broadcast networks could pull off double digit increases, a rarity even before the recession. The U.S. economy is still on tricky footing and the auto industry’s marketing plans have been upended by Japan’s troubles.

NBC, controlled by Comcast Corp, had the toughest pitch, since it had the lowest audience ratings last season and is overhauling its 2011-12 schedule with a dozen new, unproven shows. It has nonetheless managed to win price increases of about 9 percent, sources said, partly by playing up its new management team and their turnaround efforts.

Walt Disney Co’sABC, which also announced major changes to next season’s prime-time schedule, has been writing business at 10 percent to 12 percent above last year, based on rates for every thousand viewers.

Supported by a number of wildly popular shows, including ”NCIS” and “Two and a Half Men,” and a stable schedule for 2011-12, CBS pulled in the highest price rises of the upfront period. In most deals, CBS Corp’sbroadcast network won increases of 14 percent to 15 percent, sources said.

All three networks are nearly finished with negotiations in what will go down as an exceptionally fast upfront. While last year’s market finished in about the same amount of time — less than a month — the process stretched out over the entire summer in 2009.

Fox helped set the tone, finishing its prime-time sales last week at prices 10 percent to 11 percent above a year ago. A division of News Corp , Fox sold about 80 percent of its advertising inventory for $1.99 billion..

Fox runs an hour less of prime-time shows each night of the week, meaning it has fewer commercial deals to seal than its three rivals.

All four networks unveiled their 2011-12 prime-time schedules early last month, previewing more than three dozen new TV shows for advertisers, affiliates and critics before getting down to negotiations. They typically sell around 75 percent of their commercial time for the new season in the upfront market.

ABC, CBS and NBC declined to discuss specifics of any of their negotiations. (Reporting by Paul Thomasch; editing by Andre Grenon)