A+E Finishes Upfront Sales With Volume Up 12-13%

Cable group sees high returns on Duck's unlimited ratings

It was a good year for ducks.

The A+E Networks group saw plenty to quack about even without its signature nonfiction programming. Strong ratings for scripted miniseries and events like Vikings, The Bible, and Bates Motel have kept regular advertisers happy. But Duck Dynasty remains the company's crown jewel, leading growth across the board for the company. Overall, dollar volume was up between 12 percent and 13 percent for the upfront.

"We had a lot of advertisers who had interest in sponsorships and integrations," said A+E president of ad sales Mel Berning of what has come to be his flagship show. It's content A&E is proud of—the company has even trademarked the ubiquitous camo pattern, which Berning sported himself at the company's upfront preview presentation this spring.

Berning was cagey about the kinds of CPM increases the company got—"We got the rates that you've been writing about in the market," he said—but it's safe to assume mid-to-high single digits based on network performance and client retention. That would mean that A+E sold more of its total inventory in the upfront to achieve the 12 percent-13 percent volume gain.

Berning said that the group's diversity of viewership means he doesn't package its deals in quite the same way his competitors do. Lifetime, obviously, is focused on women, but History skews heavily in favor of men (a comparative rarity throughout the TV world).

"We're always looking to maximize our share of dollars, so we're always going to package them together. But we're also not going to force an advertiser who's looking for men to put money on Lifetime," he said. "We're realistic about what the agencies want to accomplish."

The exec also said that the networks saw growth in several key categories—including those that weren't necessarily up in the overall market. Restaurants grew some 11 percent at the cable group, autos increased 15 percent, financial services were up fully 20 percent and entertainment was up 14 percent.

The group's big pushes this year are the three-network simulcast of two-night miniseries Bonnie & Clyde, starring Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch, and History's Sons of Liberty—a show, as Berning put it, "about the guys down at the bar complaining about taxes" and what they plan to do about the problem. (It's a theme that more than one network is visiting in the near future. AMC greenlit a new series called Turn last week; it's based on the Revolutionary War pop history book Washington's Spies.) "We had beer and auto looking at that," Berning said, referring to Sons of Liberty.

There's also been an increase in high-profile scripted programming at Lifetime. The network's Devious Maids reunited Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry with star Eva Longoria, and it debuted to strong ratings in June (the series' numbers have grown since the premiere, with the most recent episode breaking the 1 million mark in both women 18-49 and women 25-54). Its next project, The Witches of East End, is set to debut Oct. 6., and Berning declared "a lot of success selling both of those."

Berning & Co.'s next big project is boosting the smaller networks at the group like Bio and LMN. H2 has already been repositioned as an "upscale men's network," which appears to be the next big battleground in cable. NBCU rebranded G4 to Esquire, while Discovery has repurposed the plethora of auto programming from HD Theater and added new material to the network, rechristened Velocity. H2 is betting big on a new season of America Unearthed, which overperformed for the network in season 1.