Buying Time

Jason Maltby is upfront about an uncanny ability to read networks and get TV advertisers more bang for the buck

July 11, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

NEW YORK CITY - Jason Maltby settles into a padded seat in the upper reaches of the balcony at Carnegie Hall, his right thumb resting in the crease of his left palm. He is peering steeply below to see the Soggy Bottom Boys sing gospel music from the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Only this time, their soulful songs are performed at the behest of CBS, and their lyrics tweak the network's competitors.

It is late May, the kickoff to CBS' entry in the "upfronts" - essentially a weeklong, floating trade convention for the TV industry, in which executives from each network try to promote the shows they will be putting on the air this fall. More than $8 billion will be promised in the next several weeks by advertisers to the six broadcast networks on the basis of these presentations.

NBC holds its "upfront" amid the art deco brilliance of Radio City Music Hall. ABC officials appear at the New Amsterdam Theater, where parent company Disney has staged the immensely popular Broadway version of The Lion King.

Maltby is 35 years old, lean, perhaps a couple of inches shy of 6 feet, with groomed salt-and-pepper hair. He favors suits that are pricey, but not flashy. He smokes cigarettes frequently and works out less than he once did, thanks to the rigors of fatherhood and to those of his current job.

Maltby oversees advertising accounts valued at $750 million for MindShare, a firm that advises companies where to put commercials on the air for their products. He buys broadcast and cable time for Domino's Pizza; IBM; Mattel; Novartis, a major manufacturer of over-the-counter and prescription drugs; and the U.S. Marine Corps, among others. MindShare's other clients include such major advertisers as American Express, Ford, Kodak and Unilever.

He is unquestionably a rising star among ad buyers, a status recently validated by Electronic Media, which named him one of the country's two best in the field. Maltby hasn't attained such recognition by accident. He cuts through all the burlesque of the advertising and entertainment worlds with the speed of a scythe and the clinical precision of a scalpel.

Asked about the decline of ABC, for example, Maltby says, "There are five conglomerates that control 90 percent of what we see on television. I'm not going to cry for any of them."

For the moment, CBS gamely trots out the lead actors of their series, some familiar and some new, to wow its guests: ad buyers such as Maltby, corporate executives and officials from the affiliate stations that broadcast the network's programs. Maltby makes a few observations, noting when the network is stretching the truth, but he does not respond noticeably until CBS President Leslie Moonves introduces an excerpt of what is to be a documentary on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Maltby excuses himself, then heads to the door.

His older brother Christian, a currency trader for Cantor Fitzgerald who worked at One World Trade Center, was killed in the attacks. From the first day, Jason Maltby has refused to watch any of the footage of the catastrophe that killed his brother, who was so much a part of his daily life that he lived just a mile from Jason's home.

"When that came on, my first instinct as a human being was to look at my fingernails," Maltby says quietly. "I really don't like to see the images of that building falling."

But on most occasions, he says his personal feelings or reactions don't matter. Decisions are made by network executives in their quest for viewers. "It's got nothing to do with you and nothing to do with me," he says more than once. "We're not the target audience."

He's right, of course. It's not about Jason Maltby. It never has been. Broadcast television is increasingly geared to the pursuit of younger and ever more difficult-to-reach American viewers, those, say, in the 18 to 49 age range - especially, when it comes to it, 18 to 34. They are especially hunted because they are especially tough to land. They are easily diverted from TV by edgier cable channels, the Internet, DVDs and video games. Though network programming reaches many millions more people than cable stations, it's so old school. So ancient. So very George Bush the First.

Companies pay Maltby and his bosses at MindShare substantial fees to develop a strategy for their television advertising budgets for them and to guard their money carefully. So, for example, 50 cents of every dollar spent buying a commercial on a program with an audience with a mean age of 50 is considered squandered, as half of the viewers are older than the desired range.

This is precisely why ABC tried desperately to jettison venerable newsman Ted Koppel's Nightline for a late night show with David Letterman, who attracts an audience that is only a few years younger than that of the venerable news program - the average viewer of Koppel is 52.3 years old against 47 for Letterman.

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