Handicapping the Cable Upfront

A roundup of the winners and losers

For better or worse, Viacom has set itself up as the youth option on linear television—a format whose followers are getting older by the minute. Nowhere is that fact more pronounced than on Nickelodeon, the king of kids’ networks, where ratings have tumbled and its flagship property SpongeBob SquarePants is older than most of its viewers. That, of course, puts advertisers in a choice position. One buyer says she is thrilled to have some leverage over the cabler. Meanwhile, Comedy Central is attempting to grow new properties, including the underrated Key and Peele, that can eventually stand side-by-side with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. The network has a knack for picking up off-net rights to underappreciated broadcast shows like Futurama (now back in originals on Comedy Central), and recent acquisition Community seems like a solid bet. MTV continues to push progressively younger-skewing shows, but the offering attracting the most attention looks to be Jersey Shore spinoff Snooki & JWoww. Kagan predicts reasonable gains for the networks this year—about 5.9 percent at MTV and 6.2 percent at Comedy.

AMC Networks 
For the newly public cable outfit, AMC continues to be the mouse that roared. Kagan predicts a major increase in ad revenue at the net ($426.5 million, up 15.9 percent). Its conservative programming development (it green-lit two pilots this year, an unusually large number) seems to be paying off. Recall that Mad Men was the great series nobody watched until its March premiere, when it finally started seeing real ratings (but nowhere near as high as the net’s other ratings juggernaut, The Walking Dead). Comedy-focused IFC just replaced president Evan Shapiro with Jennifer Caserta Priore, so the jury is out on what that net will look like in a few years. Sundance has big plans for Push Girls, a show about beautiful women in wheelchairs. One buyer asked if this reporter had gone to AMC’s upfront. “What presentation? We didn’t get invited,” was our reply. “Oh, I meant the Mad Men premiere party,” said the buyer. Exactly.

A+E Networks
Even in what promises to be a flat upfront market, it’s hard to imagine A+E Networks won’t get some serious traction from History, which continues to gain strength. (In April, five of the 10 most-watched TV shows among all viewers were on the nonfiction network, most notably Pawn Stars.) The jury is out on the group’s much-vaunted relaunch of Lifetime, but Nancy Dubuc—who led History to the front of the pack and now heading the women’s network—will likely give buyers some confi dence. A+E knows this and is not shy about touting it. Abbe Raven, A+E’s CEO, opened this year’s upfront presentation by calling down TLC, truTV, Discovery and TBS for copycatting and relying on off-net content to boost ratings. (“We’ve already heard from Discovery!” crowed one exec at the post-presentation party.) Immediately thereafter, ad sales head Mel Berning told buyers in no uncertain terms that they weren’t going to get off lightly this year. The company pulls in some $3.1 billion per year and is on track to have a more streamlined dual ownership, rather than a triumvirate, when NBCUniversal cashes out its 15.8 percent stake later this year for a needed cash infusion. Big picture: A+E Networks is on track to reap $1.9 billion in ad sales across all 10 of its networks this year.

Discovery Communications
One thing you can always count on during upfront season is that any network in a position to fling some mud will wear out its throwing arm. “For sale: controlling interest in OWN. $10 or best offer,” cracked Conan O’Brien at the Turner upfront presentation. Discovery Communications’ beleaguered Oprah Winfrey cable network has dominated headlines since the moment the venture was announced, but there’s much more to the company than a single joint venture. Whether or not OWN goes down in history as a serious money pit remains to be seen, and yet the company’s formerly minor property Investigation Discovery has seen its ratings skyrocket this year—so much so that Sharon O’Sullivan, head of ID ad sales, will ask for a major CPM boost this year, especially for advertisers seeking a nearly pure female audience (which should also help it move volume). The company’s flagship channel will have the forthcoming North America to drive ratings, which should bode well coming off the success of its most recent BBC co-production, the costly Frozen Planet (which Discovery spent millions of dollars to promote). This, as unscripted programs Bering Sea Gold and Gold Rush overperform among men.

Scripps Networks Interactive
Ad integration is the name of the game for Scripps Networks Interactive, the company behind Food Network, the Cooking Channel, HGTV and Travel. The Knoxville, Tenn.-based group is bullish on tailor-made campaigns and product placement, and a stable of talent including Anthony Bourdain has helped it push those integrations. (Food is one of the most profi table properties in television.) Guarantees are going to be difficult to predict with ratings ping-ponging up and down the Nielsen rankings. (It’s been suggested more than once that new measurement methodology has something to do with that.) In 2011, Food was down in the adults 18-49 dollar demo for three consecutive quarters year on year, with HGTV right behind it. But the former rebounded by the end of 2011 and continued its upward trend in Q1 of this year. April saw Food break into the top 10, while HGTV is flat. And while the company may have trouble goosing CPMs here and there, its unflagging willingness to work advertisers into series should aid inventory movement.