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Upfront Season Off to Ambitious Start

Feb 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Upfront season got started last week with Comcast Network Sales and Cartoon Network making presentations to advertisers and media buyers.

Last week’s events generally followed tradition, plying clients with entertainment and drink. But some other cable networks are planning slightly more ambitious upfront events than usual in an effort to keep themselves top-of-mind among both senior media buyers and young media planners, at least for one evening.

Coincidentally, almost all of them will be heralded by the U2 song “Vertigo,” this year’s ad sales anthem.

“It’s always the same, but it’s always different,” said Ray Warren, managing director of OMD, commenting on the annual upfront ritual.

The cable upfronts are being held until the week of May 16, when the broadcast networks take over with massive presentations in such venues as Radio City Music Hall and Lincoln Center.

Discovery Communications will pitch its cable networks April 7 at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Turner Broadcasting will hold its presentation, the first marked by a significant amount of original series programming, April 12 in the theater at Madison Square Garden, a larger venue than in previous years.

Mr. Warren said he sees value in the network galas: “They definitely refresh the memory, give you a better sense of the style of the network. They give you a chance to catch up with people you’re going to be doing business with. I think they’re pretty useful.”

But Steve Grubbs, CEO of PHD, warned there’s not enough time for all of the parties.

“There are so many of these at a time of the year when we’re out talking to all of our clients and strategizing with them, and it’s difficult to attend them all,” Mr. Grubbs said. “I think they can cover a lot of this information in one-on-one meetings. And in fact most of them follow up in one-on-one meetings. I would like to see them spread more across the course of the year. ESPN does their presentation in the fall, and they get pretty good attendance.”

While some cable networks’ presentations are growing this year, other networks will conduct smaller upfront meetings on an agency-by-agency, client-by-client basis.

“I find it’s much more effective to bring the top decision makers in terms of programming directly to the top decision makers in terms of the advertising and buying community, and I’d rather have them meet one-on-one instead of at a mass event,” said Jeff Lucas, president of ad sales for the NBC Universal Cable Entertainment Group.

While the broadcast networks need big effect, cable networks have a more targeted message they need to deliver, Mr. Lucas said. Beginning in September, he said, the NBCU Cable ad sales force presents “to every buying group out there and every planning group and every client we can get into. We strategically target them. So our message gets across to them directly.”

Still, the Comcast event, in which it presented all of its networks-E!, Style, Outdoor Life, Golf Channel, G4 and International Channel-under one sales organization for the first time, was worthwhile, Mr. Grubbs said. “I probably wanted to hear more about some of the networks. It seemed like they were operating under a time schedule. I didn’t feel the urgency to get to the shrimp or the martinis myself,” he said.

It was too soon to tell whether the Comcast networks would earn higher budgets. “They make a good case. A couple of their networks are pretty hot,” Mr. Grubbs said.

Optimism About Kids

Kim McQuilken, executive VP of sales and marketing for Cartoon Network, said his Wednesday night event at Time Warner Center was a success. “We were extremely happy because we executed ours during pre-toy fair. Everybody’s in town. We had an incredible turnout of senior client executives. We had a great quality audience. Based on who was there, it tells me we’re doing the right thing.”

While some forecast a difficult kids marketplace, given nutrition issues that could limit food advertising and violence issues that could curtail video game and DVD spots, Mr. McQuilken remained optimistic.

“More than ever, TV networks are going to have to drill down with clients and listen to what they need to accomplish,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to do more than ever in this market, and if we do that we can still build the business.”

Mr. McQuilken said the scatter market has been moving late, and this year, the first quarter includes the pre-Easter period, an important time in the kids market. “I really think we need to see the entire first-quarter spending before trying to predict the upfront,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said he’s looking for an increase in the high single digits that would put kids upfront spending in the high $800 million range.

In the general market, Mr. Lucas said, in second-quarter scatter, “Money is coming in and pacing ahead of last year.”

Second-quarter scatter “sets a mental tone for the upfront. It’s your last look at the marketplace prior to going in and doing your upfront,” he said. “There’s a lot of other factors that go into the upfront, but it gives you your gut feeling. Right now, it’s a positive feeling.”

Naturally, buyers were a little more circumspect.

“I don’t sense this upfront will be as strong as last year’s, which wasn’t as strong as the year before,” OMD’s Mr. Warren said.

For the broadcasters, “When you have a huge share of the market, but the audience is declining, it’s hard to continue to increase that,” Mr Warren said. Cable networks are “kind of holding their own and maybe picking up a bit because they’re getting a lot of the audience that’s leaving the broadcast networks.”

Mr. Grubbs said he doesn’t think this year’s market will be bigger than last year’s. “It’s going to be relatively flat, at this point,” he said. “There’s nothing to indicate otherwise.”