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Moving Beyond the Spots

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. It’s a growing necessity for cable systems across the country to raise more local and national spot advertising, and many systems have brought forth inventive sales strategies to generate more revenue over the next 12 months.
Indeed, alternatives to cross-channel messages-from children’s clubs to online banners and animated placements-may do much to help cable systems surpass the $4 billion local ad revenue mark in 2004. These campaigns, together with coordinated operator/interconnect advocacy for a bigger chunk of national spot dollars, plus anticipated gains from political and Summer Olympics clients, may drive this year’s system results just shy of $5 billion, according to Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau officials.
For 2003, CAB projected operators would wrap with about $3.6 billion in local sales, up $300 million from 2002. That total combines local and national spot buys.
“There’s a more unified, single-minded approach to positioning cable” in play this year, said Jack Olson, senior VP of Adelphia Communications Corp.’s media services unit. “Everyone will tell a powerful story on the medium, asking for a far bigger share of the budget,” using “an in-your-face, market-by-market, drill-down way,” he said.
Mr. Olsen and top management from Adelphia’s unit will meet in Florida this week to map out a year-long “product positioning” campaign using video, print, radio, direct mail and the appeal of unique sales avenues to increase business. Earlier, Comcast Cable, the industry’s largest operator, with about 22 million basic customers, noted that it was exploring a national ad business-boosting 2004 project, including a precedent-setting New York upfront event to alert agencies and media buyers to what its subscriber reach can provide. The event also would promote national buys for Comcast’s stable of channels, including Outdoor Life, G4 and the new TV One joint venture with Radio One, which premieres Jan. 19.
Adelphia’s systems serve about 5.8 million basic customers.
On another tack, Comcast is encouraging expansion of the innovative local ad strategies developing among its systems. Two of them emanate from Fort Wayne, Ind., where Comcast has more than 83,200 customers.
One is “In-Biz,” a package plan for local or statewide companies. For one price, each participating business gets an on-screen “In-Biz” icon whenever its ads appear in local avail breaks. The icon is replicated on decals that can be displayed on store windows, showing passers-by the sponsor’s campaign involvement. And when the business stages a community event or connects with an outreach project, information on the event is carried on the system’s local programming service as well as on a separate Web site, Quickclicks.tv.
More than 20 companies made In-Biz contracts last year, and 38 firms were aboard for a 2004 run as of early December, Fort Wayne General Sales Manager Andy Dix said. He didn’t offer a revenue result for 2003 or what might result this year. Still, he acknowledged that other Comcast systems in Indiana will launch In-Biz soon, and systems elsewhere are considering it.
Those systems also are considering “TV Tips,” a group of 30-second advice spots featuring local experts, along the lines of the classic 1960-70s Shell “Answer Man” messages with Don Morrow. Here, advertisers are matched with the kind of advice offered. So far, 18 sponsors are under contract for 2004, Mr. Dix said.
`Kaboink!’ Works in Texas
Throughout Texas, Time Warner Cable is starting its second year of “Kaboink! Club for Kids,” where kids 2 to 12 in eight markets can use a special card for discounts at local attractions, or from participating merchants. The venture was in place for six years at Time Warner’s San Antonio system before being rolled out last January. “We wanted to create an unusual opportunity for national clients as a network TV alternative,” Karen Narciso, a TWC regional ad sales director, said.
Assisted by an animated “Kaboink!” character, promotional spots for the club appear on local Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network avails. A separate series of vignettes, again running on Nick and Cartoon, encourage club members to practice safety and conservation measures. Spots directed at parents supporting their children’s efforts run on ESPN, Lifetime, Animal Planet and other networks. “They’re designed to get the whole family into the action,” Ms. Narciso said. Participating advertisers also get space on a “Kaboink!” Web site, where kids can find games, animation clips and other features.
Sponsors pay an annual fee to be in “Kaboink!” ranging from $35,000 in El Paso to $75,000 in San Antonio and $200,000 in Houston. Over 73,000 kids statewide are using the card, with local McDonald’s, Wendy’s and International House of Pancakes franchises on the client roster. Local entertainment venues aboard include Six Flags over Texas in Arlington and Sea World in San Antonio.
In Beaumont, Texas, grocery store chain Market Basket was so impressed with the venture it asked Time Warner permission to use the “Kaboink!” character on a new line of cakes and cupcakes. Permission was granted, and the line is going well, Ms. Narciso said.
Time Warner isn’t disclosing how much revenue “Kaboink!” generated after a year statewide. Ms. Narciso anticipates revenue will increase as much as 30 percent this year, assisted by the launch of a Spanish-language card and campaign. As with Comcast, Time Warner systems outside Texas are looking into getting out versions of their own.
“The most surprising thing so far are the special opportunities people [such as Market Basket] are bringing to us,” she added. “You never know what we might end up doing.”
One of Cox Communications’s most notable ad innovations is FreeZone, happening under its video-on-demand service in San Diego, Calif. Available to all digital customers there, FreeZone offers a range of entertainment and information, including ad messages of any length 24 hours a day, with VCR-type functionality on all messages and direct-response features on many. The service was made available systemwide last August after a 10-month trial. Coca-Cola and Volvo are among the participating national advertisers. Local clients include the San Diego Zoo.
Cox declined to release a digital sub count for San Diego, citing competitive reasons. The system recorded 536,342 subscribers as of last September.
“It’s a completely dynamic process. There’s no time limit to the content and no standards on creativity,” said Leslie Talansky, San Diego regional marketing director at Cox. “Some sponsors use this as a storytelling medium, while some use it as a brand opportunity. We want this to be groundbreaking.”
Details from a Frank Magid Associates study on FreeZone released three months ago suggest the project is breaking ground with VOD households. Including the trial period, more than 2 million videos have been accessed by customers, and each customer spends 25.5 minutes a week watching FreeZone, watching three or four videos per week on average.
Rollout plans for FreeZone in other Cox markets are “to be determined,” Ms. Talansky said. “There’s still a lot of work to do here-educate advertisers to the current VOD opportunity and get our customers comfortable with the process.”