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Cable Plugs Into Gains

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If the 2010-11 cable upfront were a World Cup match, buyers and sellers would now be at about the 80-min. mark, with little threat of stoppage time added to defray any on-field histrionics.

At week’s end, at least two top-tier cable network groups—NBC Universal and Viacom—had completed their upfront business at high-single-digit pricing premiums. Also charging the box were Turner Broadcasting, which late on June 11 was estimated to have moved as much as 90 percent of its allotment, and Discovery Communications, which had sewn up about 80 percent of its business.

“The market is reflective of what’s going on in the business world and people are feeling a lot more comfortable about their companies’ prospects,” said Gary Carr, svp, executive director, national broadcast at New York-based media agency TargetCast tcm. “A year ago, everybody thought the world was coming to an end.”

Both Turner and Discovery could put a bow on their remaining deals as early as today, June 14. Meanwhile, A&E Networks, Comcast Networks and Fox Cable Networks were said to be done with more than half of their business.

NBCU last week hammered out deals for its cable portfolio at average CPM hikes of 9 percent over last year’s bazaar, landing commitments for approximately 50 percent of its available inventory at USA Network, Syfy, Bravo and Oxygen. Total volume was up 20 percent.

Per sources, USA was able to command prime-time pricing hikes of 9 percent, although in some instances, the top-rated cable net was able to lift CPMs by as much as 10 percent from last year’s rates. NBCU made a concerted effort to land higher rates for USA, which has been widely perceived as “underpriced,” given its suite of high-profile crowd pleasers like Burn Notice and Royal Pains and promising new entries (Covert Affairs, Facing Kate).

Youth magnet Viacom locked in pricing and volume increases commensurate with the broadcast market, notching mid-teen dollar gains at MTV Nets and BET Nets. Ratings challenges at VH1 and Spike TV were offset by improvement at the flagship net and Nickelodeon’s unshakable dominance of total day.

Despite some early push-back from buyers, Turner seems to have held the line on pricing for TBS’ late-night Conan O’Brien showcase. While Turner’s unit pricing hasn’t overtaken NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno or CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman, “they’re getting pretty damn close,” said one buyer. In prime, TBS and TNT are said to have written deals at 9 percent above 2009-10 rates. On the whole, the bulk of the cable market could be sewn up by the end of this week, with total commitments tallying between $7.79 billion and $7.92 billion, for a lift of between 18-20 percent.

Maureen Bosetti, svp, group director national TV investments, Optimedia, said business was driven by categories “chasing the same time periods and shows.” Auto was particularly active, as manufacturers looked to snap up avails in fourth quarter ’10 to secure a large national audience during the crucial pre-holiday period. Retail has also flooded the zone.

As play winds down, sellers suggested that this year’s competition will be remembered for its fast pace––the last time an upfront wrapped in mid-June was 2004––and the dearth of overt gamesmanship. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few operatic thrashings on the turf. “Scatter has been moving into the upfront at an unprecedented rate,” said one ad sales boss. “Because of that influx, some buyers are suggesting we’d better rake in as much as we can now, because there won’t be a dollar left for scatter afterwards.”

If clients do hold back in Q3, the nets would obviously look to tighten the screws on cancellation options, although that’s for another day.

“We’re getting our pricing and our volume,” said the ad sales chief. “No sense trying to push that agenda while we’re getting everything else we need.”