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Handicapping the Cable Upfront

A roundup of the winners and losers

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Cable networks have griped for years that it’s past time they achieved parity in ad rates with broadcasters—and at some conglomerates (namely, NBCU), cable outshines broadcast. But despite cable’s sturm und drang about showing the big boys who’s boss, it all hinges on CBS’ CPM gains, says Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser, formerly lead forecaster for Interpublic. “The negotiation for the cable players is relative to that number,” he explains. “If you believe you deserve a premium, it’s a premium to that number.” Following are upfront week highlights among cable’s key players.

NBCU 
NBCUniversal Cable is a dual-pronged operation. On the NBC Cable Entertainment side, chairman Bonnie Hammer oversees perennial success story USA (which is ramping up new unscripted content like The Choir) and E!, which launched a major rebrand that’s less Kardashian-centric. SNL Kagan predicts a slight bump of about $81 million for USA—but we’ll see what new NBCU cable sales president Linda Yaccarino, the Turner vet known to drive a hard bargain, has to say about that. Syfy is stepping out on a limb with expensive new video game-scripted hybrid Defiance, a project that will either create a whole new genre or become a campfire story used to scare the wits out of adventurous development executives. On the Entertainment and Digital Networks side, headed by chairman Lauren Zalaznick, Bravo continues to leverage its Housewives franchise, while Oxygen still flails. The network is stuck with The Glee Project, a competition show offering as a grand prize a spot on ratings- challenged Fox dramedy Glee, as it pushes hopeful franchise starts such as Girlfriend Confidential in a bid to create new anchor shows.

News Corporation 
News Corp doesn't have a huge linear cable portfolio in the U.S., but its two biggest cable holdings, FX (part of Fox Networks, which includes FUEL and the National Geographic suite of networks) and Fox News Channel, punch well above their weight class.  FNC will likely see gains of about 7.6 percent in ad revenue—small for an election year, but then again, Fox’s mammoth ratings don’t fluctuate with the news cycle as wildly as its competitors’ do. FX is on track to gain 12 percent in ad dollars on the strength of new content—namely, the Charlie Sheen vehicle Anger Management, which the network is promoting without having shown a single scrap of footage (though it fared well with test audiences).

Disney 
Kenny Mayne of ESPN’s Wider World of Sports was the most entertaining part of the network’s upfront presentation and delivered one of the week’s most memorable lines: “It’s through the support of viewers like you that we manage to keep our programming on the air. That and seven dollars a cable subscriber.” The figure is actually $4.69, far and away the highest sub fee in cable. But the point remains: ESPN doesn’t rely as heavily on ad dollars as other players. Disney’s other big ad-supported property, ABC Family, gets the ratings, yet SNL Kagan predicts modest ad growth of about 4 percent this year.

Turner 
Poor Turner. It’s been less than competitive lately for perennial top 10 networks TBS and TNT—especially the former, which was off 11 percent in prime-time 18-49 ratings for 2011 (TNT was down 3 percent). This, as rivals like History and FX continued to climb. TBS rebounded early this year, but TNT did not and is now pinning its hopes on Dallas, a sequel to the classic nighttime soap, and still more police procedurals. TBS has several new series queued up for fall, and not a moment too soon. Viewers can watch marathon after marathon of The Big Bang Theory for only so long before flipping over to USA for first-run off-net Modern Family episodes. Clearly, the network has fingers crossed that one of the newbies sticks firmly enough to anchor other series. An important development: TBS is this close to letting Conan O’Brien run the asylum. The TBS host produces one new series for 2013 (Deon Cole’s Black Box) and has another two in development. But the jewel in Turner’s crown, at least in prime time, is Adult Swim. The network (which, incidentally, throws utterly surreal upfront parties, leading otherwise fearless cable TV reporters to suffer nightmares about giant rabbits) was among the top 10 networks in adults 18-34 and 18-49 last year, well above its 2010 performance. What changed its fortunes? Patton Oswalt, perhaps? Still more projects are in the pipeline, none buzzier than a pilot order for a cartoon from Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s Community.
 

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