For Madison Avenue, NFL strike changes the whole game plan

For the second Sunday in a row, the New York City branch bank manager cleaned the furnace and the basement of his suburban home and contemplated doing other tasks to winterize the house.

In Stamford, Conn., a highly paid salesman took his family for a long and leisurely Sunday afternoon drive - something they hadn't done for years.

In Savannah, Ga., an attorney spent hours poring over his Sunday newspaper and thought seriously about going into the office to catch up on his workload.

Sunday afternoons at this time of year usually would find these and 12 to 15 million other Americans anchored in front of their television sets, watching National Football League games.

The NFL players strike has changed all that. It has also changed the game for advertisers and their ad agencies, who are looking for alternate ways to reach this highly prized market of football fans.

Should advertisers fail to find alternate programming, or should the strike continue to the point where the entire season is canceled, the potential loss to advertising and network profits is staggering. Producers of beverages, business machines, and convenience foods, among others, have been paying an average of $ 80,000 for a 30-second spot slotted into an NFL game broadcast. The entire season represents $400 million, nearly a half-billion dollars, of advertising revenue to the three networks.

At CBS, the game plan for the last two weekends, both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, has been to broadcast NCAA Division III college football games.

''Advertising time for these games was sold out,'' reports Paul J. Isacsson, CBS vice-president for sales. ''Of course, the audience was not as large, so we're offering alternate schedules to advertisers. Or, we're offering to reduce price - whichever they want. Almost all are taking the first choice, because this is the season when advertisers must reach consumers with their buy message.''

At Backer & Spielvogel, one of Madison Avenue's hot, new ad shops, the media department is burning the midnight oil to make needed changes in client TV schedules. The company has mushroomed in size since it was founded a couple of years ago,

''Only those pro-football advertisers who have failed to re-express, or re-invest, their advertising in other properties have experienced a real loss so far,'' says Stephen Leff, the agency's executive vice-president and director of media services. ''Naturally, the strike has meant a lot of extra work for us here at the agency, but we expect that. It's all part of the game.

''Our biggest problem to date has been that the networks didn't do enough contingency planning before the strike started. Perhaps they couldn't. As a consequence, there simply aren't enough alternate 'positions,' or time availabilites, that you can buy for your clients.

''If the strike continues into the last quarter of the year, the situation will loosen up somewhat and there will be more commercial time available. Any other media mix, including magazines or cable TV, poses problems for advertisers that could make it costly for them to reach the audience they're after.''

Matthew Bryant, president of Media Buying Services International, says that in the first couple of weeks of the strike, ''there was a wait-and-see attitude and a lot of talk of 'make-goods,' whereby the networks offer advertisers additional spots to pick up the missing audience.''

There is also the possibility that advertisers will look for alternatives, including cable TV networks like ESPN (Entertainment Sports Programming Network) and SNC (Sattelite News Channels), says Mr. Bryant, whose company is a time and space buyer for smaller Manhattan advertising agencies, as well as those located elsewhere in the country, .

''But the interesting thing about the advertising business,'' Mr. Bryant adds , ''is that we're in a commodity business. There's only so much inventory available. So anything that affects a major segment, like the loss of pro-football on television, can have a ripple effect on all the media.''

Joseph Ostrow, director of communications planning at Young & Rubicam, one of the country's largest advertising agencies, says he agrees that so far there hasn't been much loss in ad revenues, although the NFL strike has meant searching for alternate television programming.

''It's meant a lot of hard work for us finding the right media choices to replace the NFL games for our accounts that use football broadcasts to advertise , like our Kentucky Fried Chicken, Merrill Lynch, and Ford-Lincoln-Mercury Division accounts. We're continuing to investigate other pieces of TV - and magazines like Newsweek and Sports Illustrated - to find that upscale, male audience that we're looking for. Each of our clients has specific needs, and we're working on a week-to-week basis to resolve the individual needs of each account.''

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