Good morning. It's Wednesday, April 4, 2012, and this is your second installment of this special series on this year's Upfront season.
CABLE UPFRONT 2012: The Cable Market
By Daisy Whitney
That seems to be the thorniest of thorny questions heading into this year's cable upfront since, well, so many other questions have nearly been answered.
Like: How will the cable upfront shake out
Strong. Like last year. Like scatter. Like cable's ratings.
Okay, so maybe it's too early to predict, but thanks to a healthier economy and a steady scatter market, both media buyers and networks are feeling optimistic about the prospects for cable's haul to rise over last year, which itself was a very good year.
"We're still seeing strong pricing above upfront levels despite one of the strongest upfronts in recent history," said Linda Yaccarino, President of Cable Entertainment and Digital Sales at NBCUniversal. "That says a lot about where advertisers are placing their marketing bets and reflects the shift of advertising dollars to television from print."
Last year, cable's ad take rose in the high teens and this year a high single digit increase seems likely, said Mel Berning, Executive VP Ad Sales for AETN.
Indeed, both ratings and scatter have been strong, which should lead to a bigger upfront, added Joe Abruzzese, President of Ad Sales at Discovery Communications.
Discovery will focus on many of its emerging networks like ID, Science. Velocity, Military, Fit and Health, since those have been growing fast, he said.
Another Good Year
But don't just believe the networks. Ad buyers, notoriously skeptical in predictions, are keen on cable's prospects.
"I believe [the upfront] will be as active as it was last year, and in particular cable will, which was very active last year," said Carl Fremont, Executive VP and Global Media Director at Digitas. "A lot of this has to do with the broadcast networks not having as many iconic programs anymore. What was attractive to marketers was the ability to reach a broad scale audience, but with the loss of audiences in some of those iconic programs, that's getting harder to do, and I believe the dollars are following the audience and the content, and that is increasingly going to cable."
The challenge will be in the proliferation of cable networks. "There are good signs of life in all aspects of media demand, and cable is well positioned to capitalize," said Bob Rose, Executive VP of Accounts and Media at Seiter & Miller Advertising. "In aggregate, cable is now achieving about twice the viewership compared to broadcast TV among key demos like 18-49, and that puts them in a very competitive position. The problem is that there is so much intramural competition now among ad-supported networks... And, many of them are doing really good original programming. So although cable in general will have a solid upfront, individual nets will still have to slug it out."
Perhaps the biggest unknown is digital's place at the table. "This is the first year in which digital and three-screen will play a bigger role in a lot of conversations beyond sports and news," said David Levy, President of Sales, Distribution and Sports at Turner Broadcasting System. Both his flagship networks TNT and TBS are faring well in ratings, with TNT up in total viewers and key adult demos and with TBS remaining the #1 cable network in primetime in adults 18 to 34 and 18 to 49.
Penetration of tablets and smartphones, coupled with the growth in consumer use of social media around TV is driving the interest in second and third-screen options, Levy said, adding that early results from March Madness indicate that more people streamed games via mobile than broadband.
Plus, TNT is having success with its TeamCoco.com tablet app that synchs to the show. The network will sell some of these second screen options and social networking components in the upfront around shows such as Conan O'Brien, Falling Skies, and Dallas. "We are building extensions and original content for digital around the entertainment programming. There is a community and a fan base that loves and wants to spend more time with certain shows," Levy said.
AMC will also talk up its digital extensions as a way to forge a deeper connection with programming. That includes WE tv Sync and the AMC Sync tablet/laptop experiences that have caught the interest of certain advertisers, said Scott Collins, Executive VP of Advertising Sales for AMC & WE tv.
Yaccarino said all of NBCU's programming will have significant social media and so-called "360-tie ins" as well. "There's no greater opportunity for a client than a super-engaged fan, and our multi-platform and social media extensions will be a big topic of discussion for us during the upfront," she said.
Scripps too expects digital extensions to be part of conversations. "In one of the hardest hit industries during this recession, new home building, a fourth quarter modest on-air and online integrated partnership drove almost 100 new home sales," said Steve Giglioitti, President of Ad Sales and Marketing at Scripps Networks Interactive. "Our digital platforms fit hand-in-glove with our traditional networks because of our content."
Still, other networks say they don't expect digital to be a driving factor just yet, and that ad deals with strong digital components often arise separately from the upfront. The upfront market is still about finding efficiencies in TV programming and tends to have more of a programming focus, some cablers say.
Some media buyers aren't entirely convinced either that digital should be a part of the upfront. Fremont at Digitas said there's a risk if digital becomes a mere-ad on. "That devalues what digital could bring," he said. "What digital can do for a linear broadcast buy is to optimize it. We must look at a second screen as a way to create interactivity and extend the consumer experience and optimize it, not just bundle it together."
However, with so much more social media activity centered around television, it will interesting to see how the networks package digital and social with their proposals, Rose said.
Look for automotive, retail and movie companies to be strong players. Those categories will likely move the market sometime around Memorial Day. Nearly all buyers and sellers expect a strong showing from auto, which is a beacon category that often speaks to the overall health of the TV ad marketplace. "The auto category promises to be hot," Collins said. "I anticipate QSRs, with their various 'pizza wars,' and technology, will also be healthy."
History Channel too has seen nice increases in the car category and from fast food restaurants, and is starting to play in areas like packaged goods, with new marketers - to the network like Unilever. "We are now seeing interest from Land Rover and Jaguar because we deliver a big audience and a high quality audience," Berning said, adding that History has upped its volume of advertisers and dollars in nearly all categories from entertainment to restaurants to tech year over year, in line with the network's ratings. History garnered its best ratings ever for the first quarter of this year in key demos.
CPM Challenges for Cable
The biggest challenge remains for cable networks to gain higher CPMs. "This is an age old problem for cable which still has still has a Little Brother complex. Yes, they need to fight for revenue but they also need to get the pricing they deserve," Rose said.
The pricing differential in CPMs is still about 25% between broadcast and cable, but that starts to shrink in the scatter, programming executives have said.
But with each strong upfront, the gap can start to close.
Later -- Daisy Whitney for Cynopsis