We've reached that point in the year when the group TV negotiators at the big media buying units - the likes of Group M, Magna and OPera - really earn their corn.
Before the end of the year, agencies will have to pin down their trading deals for the 2006 calendar year. In talks with each sales point, the equation boils down to share of budget (and sometimes absolute levels of commitment) negotiated against a discount off a nominal average airtime cost. Obviously, the broadcasters best-placed to drive a hard bargain are the ones whose audience seems to be on the up. But some agencies and advertisers are, for a variety of reasons, more interested in price than in quality.
There's a lot of brinkmanship involved - and if you are a buyer, there's an art to playing one sales point off against another. Get it right and you can justify your three-week holiday in January in the southern hemisphere.
Get it wrong and you may as well spend the rest of the year in Antarctica.
1. Usually (but not always) agencies like to tie up their deal with ITV before moving on to deals with the other sales points - and ITV has sent out letters saying there will be penalties for all advertisers who have not committed to January airtime by 9 November. In theory, this is when the annual deal should be complete too. Buyers tend to throw this letter in the bin.
One airtime negotiator says: "To be honest, both sides have genuine issues to work through - but they don't half make a meal of it at ITV. They are lippy c**ts so they don't feel they've done their jobs properly until they've had three preliminary meetings so they can show us all their presentation charts."
So, the tough talking won't really begin until the end of November.
2. Most predict ITV is going to get a caning this year. It has lost audience so, under the terms of Contract Rights Renewal, advertisers can reduce their commitment pro rata without penalty. This year, however, some advertisers (especially those targeting a young male demographic, which ITV1 serves poorly) will almost certainly want to take even more money off. They will do this assuming that ITV will do anything in its power to avoid the sort of confrontation that will call for the intervention of Ofcom's CRR adjudicator, David Connolly.
3. Agency estimates of the likely level of the ITV1 haemorrhage range from £120 million to £150 million.
4. Gary Digby, the managing director of ITV Sales, has been charged with trying to claw back some of the lost ITV1 money for other members of the ITV family - ITVs 2, 3 and 4. Agencies will listen to proposals on how this might be achieved - ITV2 is now seen as the top digital channel above Sky One. It is believed Digby has been given a clawback target of £50 million. Buyers reckon he will struggle to achieve £20 million.
5. Next in line after the ITV deal is the Channel 4 deal - and Channel 4 sales teams might feel that they have most buying points over a barrel this year. This is already leading to some ill-feeling. As one buyer puts it: "Planners love the idea of Channel 4, clients love it too and if we want to come off ITV and still get programmes with decent audiences, then there's nowhere else for us to go. But they've become spectacularly arrogant.
To me, in terms of attitude, they're the new ITV. And we have long memories."
6. Five is not expected to make a strong showing in the 2006 market. Buyers say it only offers a small number of must-have programmes and add that in many cases they are already over-committed to the channel. Lacking a multichannel offering also counts against it.
7. Outside of its Sky Sports channels, Sky's proposition is also regarded as tired but under the Sky Media managing director, Nick Milligan, and the deputy managing director, Paul Curtis, Sky is expected to push for greater share of revenues.
8. Turner and Viacom are regarded as innovative, if peripheral, and are rewarded accordingly. However, Viacom, in particular, is less reliant on revenues traded upfront, taking 50 per cent from bespoke deals and sponsorships. The years when ids could be relied upon to punch above its weight are over, one buyer says. The onscreen fare of its UKTV channels is looking unappetising.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- In a word, "nemesis". This time last year, ITV's audience performance wasn't half bad, so the provisions of CRR didn't really bite. This time around, audience projections are weak.
- The instincts of the ITV Sales boss, Gary Digby, will be to play hardball.
But the ITV chief executive, Charles Allen, wants CRR phased out as soon as possible - so the last thing he wants is a succession of rows brewing up over the next two months.
- Agencies are counting on ITV1 absorbing the pain of an extra short-term hit with this longer-term goal in mind.
- Many buyers believe this could be the real "tipping point" for the digital multichannel offerings of mainstream broadcasters. ITV2, ITV3, E4 and More4 are predicted to do particularly well.
- But buyers are disappointed that Sky isn't doing more to offer an attractive alternative. As one buyer puts it: "This time last year, we were led to believe that Sky One would be sorted. It hasn't been. Last year, Sky's sales operation came out banging the drum. This year, its silence has been conspicuous."