Universal changes with the times

Jun 2, 2003  •  Post A Comment

One telling difference between this cable upfront and the last one is the shift in strategy from Jeff Lucas, president of advertising sales, Universal Television Networks. Last year, just two months after joining Universal, Mr. Lucas infuriated many of his counterparts at other cable networks by publicly announcing that he would drop CPMs at USA Network and Sci- Fi Channel in return for big revenue increases. This year, Universal instead opted to offer package deals with its USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel, both of which have much fuller programming slates, and flood the market with sales calls.

“I made a lot of enemies last year,” Mr. Lucas told TelevisionWeek, adding that he regretted nothing. “We had a specific goal in mind, and that was to get us back into the game, to become a player again in the cable marketplace, and to do that we needed to generate a volume of dollars.

“The network had been at about 35 percent sellout the prior year,” Mr. Lucas said. “We generated volume in order to pump dollars into our development for original programming. So we achieved that.”

This year, though, with hits like Monk and Dead Zone at USA Network and Taken at Sci-Fi and projects such as USA’s Peacemaker and Bionic Woman and Sci-Fi’s Dead Lawyers and Painkiller Jane in the pipeline, the strategy had to be different. As a result, USA and Sci-Fi have a “full slate” of advertisers, Mr. Lucas said.

Upfront dealmaking “started out in the high singles,” but then “we found that the advertisers were very receptive, so we raised our prices,” Mr. Lucas said.

Most deals have been in the “low doubles,” he said, adding that this upfront is very different from last year.

Universal’s “main business” is almost completed, Mr. Lucas said, with at least 82 percent of the inventory set aside for upfront gone by the end of last week. He attributed his good results to more than good programming. “We made over 1,200 sales calls last year, where we did the actual presentation,” he said. “That’s not counting me going in and having a cup of coffee with someone. We blanketed the market from the agency side, at the buying level and at the planning level and also at the client. Any door that we could get our foot in, we went in.”