Cable Clears a Lowered Bar

Aug 14, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Flat is the new up in the cable upfront advertising market.

The cable upfront does not appear to have grown much, if at all. But executives of most of the big cable programmers-Turner Broadcasting, MTV Networks, NBC Universal, Fox Cable Entertainment and Lifetime-asserted last week that they were happy with managing to outperform a weak market. Those companies all said they are finally finished selling upfront ads.

The claims puzzled observers, including Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen.

“Essentially every single diversified media company with cable networks has suggested it is outperforming its peers in this year’s upfront,” Ms. Cohen said in a report last week. “Although we have no doubt the large players are having more success than their smaller brethren, this nonetheless strikes us as a bit odd.”

Merrill Lynch projects that cable’s upfront will grow 3 percent to $7.3 billion. Some ad buyers said cable dollars could be flat to down and that they pushed the networks to lower prices.

Ad sales executives said they think the market was slightly down to flat overall, but most said their own networks were flat to up in sales and in pricing.

Turner Broadcasting registered a mid-single digit increase in volume with prices on a cost-per-thousand-viewers basis flat to slightly higher, said David Levy, president of Turner Entertainment ad sales.

“We got the high end in revenue. We certainly have the high end in CPMs,” Mr. Levy said.

At Viacom’s cable networks, volume was up by mid-single digits with flat to slightly up CPMs, President and CEO Tom Freston said last week.

“Not all cable networks are created equal, and particularly in tough markets, strong brands with desirable audiences are and multiplatform solutions will prevail,” he said.

Advertising on digital platforms accounted for about 6 percent of Viacom’s upfront sales and are giving a boost to ad sales overall.

“It’s high demand at very high CPMs, but we’re able to package it with other [linear] inventory … and that creates a good dynamic for us,” Mr. Freston said.

Fox Cable’s FX finished flat in volume and accepted “cosmetic” negative prices to get deals done, said Bruce Lefkowitz, senior VP of ad sales. The smaller National Geographic Channel generated a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in volume. Fox Reality Channel scored $2.5 million in sales.

“The fact that you have a new unmeasured network that writes upfront business is pretty good in a market like this,” he said.

NBCU, which includes top-rated USA Network, and Lifetime were also essentially done, according to executives, with NBC showing single-digit sales increases and pricing and Lifetime finishing flat.

Trouble for Small Nets

The gains by the biggest networks could spell trouble for the smaller ones. Buyers said they planned to buy shorter lists of networks for their clients. Hallmark Channel said it expected to sell only 40 percent to 45 percent of its inventory in the upfront to push for higher pricing.

“I think a lot of midlevel guys are just getting started,” Mr. Lefkowitz said.

While the upfront sales unquestionably took months longer than in recent years, and pricing pressure was intense, ad sales executives wanted to avoid putting too much attention on the results of the upfront and look instead at the combination of upfront and scatter.

The networks still have a lot of inventory left to sell, especially with advertisers looking to retain the flexibility to place their ad dollars closer to the time they want their commercials to air.

That deferred spending is expected to show up in the scatter market. “Third-quarter scatter is huge,” Mr. Lefkowitz said. He said FX was up 12 percent and getting 15 percent price increases in scatter.

Mr. Freston said Viacom is optimistic about scatter for the rest of the year.

But the slowness of the upfront might be something ad sellers might have to get used to.

“I think this was a watershed,” said Mr. Levy.

He said negotiations are more intricate, with discussion of multiple platforms, money moving from linear to digital programming, promotion and product placement. That will create opportunities down the road for networks with strong brands and the ability to extend them beyond television.

“It all leads to how people do on a 52-week basis,” he said.