Cable Changes Upfront Tack

Mar 5, 2007  •  Post A Comment

It’s early in this year’s cable upfront season, and networks are looking for new ways to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Executives from two channels meeting with buyers this week think they have something unique that will make advertisers take notice.

Sci Fi will tout new research showing the network’s audience is loaded with the trend-setting viewers marketers must reach to get word of mouth started about new brands and products they’re launching.

GSN, on the other hand, calls its approach “participation television,” where viewers interact not only with the network’s programs but with sponsors’ brands.

This year, more cable networks are downplaying the traditional May-June upfront negotiating frenzy and focusing on year-round communication with buyers and clients. Turner Broadcasting and A&E Television are replacing big upfront presentations with a series of smaller meetings with buyers. Last week, MTV changed its approach to a “rolling upfront,” with meetings focusing on integration, research and program schedules at different times.

Most cable buys aren’t made until after the broadcasters have finished their upfront deals. This year the broadcasters might not be able to start until an agreement is hammered out on whether buys will be based on commercial ratings or will include delayed viewing on digital video recorders.

For now, that leaves the cable networks seeking the attention of media planners, who decide which networks best fit with their clients’ brands’ needs.

Matching up brands with networks in the planning process “is critical for advertisers and marketers to understand where they want to look to invest,” said Mark Miller, executive VP, sales, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment. “Then the marketplace will play out as to what pricing and the volume is.”

John Swift, managing director at ad buyer PHD USA, said it’s good the cable networks are doing something other than talking about their own program schedules.

“It’s a challenge, with 60 television networks and all the digital people trying to move into this process, to get your message out there,” he said. “I applaud them for coming to the party with something that is intelligent, different and something that advertisers and agencies are going to value.”

Sci Fi’s presentation gives a nod to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point,” which says a small group of people can have a great deal of influence.” New research from Simmons shows Sci Fi’s audience has the highest concentration of those individuals. (Court TV and BET also scored high in the research.)

“For a while now we’ve been aware of the fact that Sci Fi delivers a very unique audience that advertisers really need to get to first and fast in terms of spotting trends and being early adopters and innovators,” said David Howe, general manager of Sci Fi.

The research “ratifies some things that we’ve known and actually gives media buyers and advertisers real marching orders in terms of why they need to buy Sci Fi,” he said.

While Sci Fi was ranked No. 14 last year among cable networks in terms of total viewers, it is viewed by some ad buyers as a niche channel because of its genre. The new research might help change buyers’ mindsets.

“It’s going to drive the value proposition of Sci Fi and the value of its viewers,” Mr. Miller said.

Making a Point

While trying to make “tipping point” an ad-buying buzzword, Sci Fi won’t ignore the other hot topics in the ad business, including “engagement” and “multiplatform.”

“Engagement is all about involvement and passionate interaction, which goes beyond the purely passive viewing experience,” Mr. Howe said.

He pointed out that in DVR homes, only 1 in 4 viewers of “Battlestar Galactica” watch the program live when it is telecast and that its fans are very active on the Sci Fi Web site, communicating with one another about the program virally.

Playing the Game

The pitch from GSN-the former Game Show Network-is all about participation.

“What we’re doing at GSN is always trying to figure out how advertisers can have a deeper relationship with our viewers,” said Chris Raleigh, senior VP, sales, GSN.

Last year, the network rolled out a late-night block called “Playmania” that consists of live game shows. Viewers can text, call or go online and answer questions, some of which revolve around an advertiser’s brand attributes. Eleven percent of GSN viewers are playing along.

On the show “Quiznation,” host Shandi Finnessey sampled Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and fielded the cheesiest pickup lines from viewers.

Other advertisers who’ve been involved in similar promotions are Procter & Gamble, Burger King, Napster, Geico and movie companies After Dark Films, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, New Line Cinema and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. GSN recently signed deals with Suzuki and Foster Grant.

GSN plans to move the concept to prime time.

“We’re very close to doing an announcement for another platform for other programs that would go across prime and other dayparts,” Mr. Raleigh said.

The involving format keeps viewers tuned in and interacting during commercial breaks.

Mr. Raleigh said GSN also can work with advertisers in developing branded versions of the kind of online casual games consumers are spending more time playing.

“We know people are spending an average of 20 minutes with casual games. They’re spending over 22 minutes with our linear television network. That’s a pretty good experience,” he said.