We are, according to some television airtime traders, counting down to the last-ever autumn deal-making season. A system that has (more or less) been in place since the dawn of commercial television in this country is, they say, about to end.
And in some respects it's odd that all this should be in the air when, contrary to all expectations, we've not seen the radical structural changes that almost everyone was predicting this year.
The downturn was expected to trigger a loosening or removal of the Contract Rights Renewal rules restricting the price at which ITV may sell its airtime. That would have triggered consolidation among the other sales points, producing a once-in-a-generation reconfiguration of the commercial television landscape.
It hasn't happened, clearly (though there are those who still believe there could be sudden and unexpected developments on this front). And that, ironically, may compound the destabilising forces about to hit the market from another direction.
Thanks to the recession, TV pricing is already at rock bottom - and yet buyers are gearing up to push them lower. A lot lower. We're still in the midst of pitch frenzy, with accounts totalling more than £1 billion in TV spend (roughly one-third of the TV-revenue pot) currently up for grabs. And observers, not least in the media owner sector, say that agencies pitching on those accounts are all making unrealistic promises about the increased levels of discount they will be able to deliver.
They will be unable to meet those promises without resorting to dangerous levels of creative accountancy on their agency deals. Which in turn will lead either to litigation or an even more ferocious round of (re-) pitching next year.
The market's sums didn't add up this year. Next year, we're in Through-the-Looking-Glass territory. So, with the caveat that, if the market goes pop, we'll have to start again, here's our assessment of the runners and riders in this year's negotiation stakes.
1. ITV is in relatively fine fettle. Ratings on ITV1 have been decent - and any money leaving the flagship channel has been successfully corralled on to ITVs 2, 3 and 4. The main problem it faces this season is that buyers, expecting CRR to be repealed next year, will want to reduce their share commitments to as low a level as possible to achieve a favourable benchmark for year one of the new trading era.
2. Channel 4, however, is likely to be this autumn's bloodiest battleground. Strategically and creatively, the channel is adrift (its biggest programming franchise, Big Brother, is on its way out and there are no signs that there's anything to replace it) and commercially its airtime is perceived to be overpriced.
Channel 4's weak position is exacerbated by the fact that it has a whole slew of two-year deals (negotiated, obviously, in better times) coming up for renewal.
Buyers will want to reduce their commitment pro rata with the channel's declining share in commercial impacts - but its sales team, headed by Andy Barnes, is expected to play hardball, telling buyers that they'll have to accept Channel 4 terms or risk not being able to do business with the channel at all.
3. Five is also expected to be targeted for attack. The business is losing money hand over fist and buyers say it's not been talking a good long-term strategic game, other than vaguely holding out for a merger with Channel 4. So few media agencies will lose sleep about the long-term implications of falling out with Five. And because it offers little in the way of a unique selling proposition (and is thus seen as easily dispensable in schedule terms), it could become the victim of what's called "casualty planning" - the offer of derisory take-it-or-leave it offers.
4. If Sky Media has a weakness, it's the fact that it lost representation of the Bauer-owned Box Television music channels to Channel 4. But buyers say this is of marginal importance, especially when the really big battles are being fought elsewhere.
5. That's also true of the other smaller players, ids and Via-com Brand Solutions. VBS has built up bags of goodwill over the year thanks to its heritage of lateral thinking and the collaborative attitude it brings to trading; while ids can point to the robust audience performance of its digital channel portfolio, notably Virgin 1 and the UKTV family.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- Advertisers are being egged on by their media auditors to play a potentially dangerous game of brinksmanship in which the commercial television economy is concerned - and they could live to regret it. In the short term, a handful of procurement people could end up looking very smug; longer term, Britain's major blue-chip companies are in danger of compromising the marketing elements of their recovery strategies. This is the time to be building sustainable long-term business relationships - but they appear hell-bent on trying to hole their strategic communications partners below the waterline.
- Media agencies are in a truly horrible position - and they know it. In the past, they've been able to reconcile promises to new clients by deriving ever more cunning types of elasticity from the pool of monies committed to the "agency deal" system - but media auditors are ready to pounce if there's even the slightest of hints that Peter is being robbed to pay Paul. So, given the ridiculous nature of some of the promises being made in pitches, it's almost inevitable that we'll see agencies defaulting on deals in some form or another next year.
- Some TV companies find themselves in the ridiculous position of praying now that the system fails sooner rather than later. During 2009, the total coming out of the market (year on year) is likely to be more than £440 million. That isn't funny. But what's about to happen in the 2010 airtime market is, they insist, beyond a joke.