Disney Channel Sees Big CPM and Volume Gains as Toy Companies Expand Holiday Ad Buys

Surging category propels upfront

As more media companies pull within sight of the finish line, Disney Channel is the latest to conclude its upfront negotiations. The company—which includes Disney Junior and Disney XD—saw big CPM (cost per thousand viewers reached) and volume gains this year thanks to a huge assist from the surging toys category, which is expanding beyond the traditional September-to-November holiday season ad spend.

CPMs across Disney's platforms increased between the high singles and low doubles, while volume jumped 20 percent over last year's upfront, said Rita Ferro, evp of Disney media sales and marketing.

The upfront gains were fueled by "significant growth" in the toys and theatrical categories, Ferro said. "That's a trend in the toy space. They went into the upfront very strong."

The toy brands are pushing beyond their usual "hard 10" holiday ad buys—the 10 weeks leading into the holiday selling season (the last week of September to the last week of November), when most of their TV ad dollars are spent—as they work with retailers to secure pivotal prime shelf space during the fall. "It's really important for them to be able to say, 'By the way, I'm starting in August, and this toy is going to have [advertising] support, so you should be comfortable about this being one of your main pushes,'" said Ferro. "We're starting to see that the second week of August is really where ramp up across the board."

The usual post-"hard 10" lull has also diminished this upfront, as toy companies are extending their linear campaigns into December. "So they're starting earlier and going later," Ferro said.

Disney isn't the only kids network to see upfront boosts from those categories. Toys and movie studios were also extremely strong for Nickelodeon during Viacom's upfront, which wrapped almost two weeks ago. Volume was up 5 percent for Nickelodeon, with toys and kids' releases accounting for the increase, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

With several big kids and family movies coming out over the holiday season—including stand-alone Star Wars film Rogue One, Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and three animated titles: Moana (Disney), Trolls (Dreamworks) and Sing (Universal)— buyers are looking to secure ad space for both the films and their related toy merchandising. "Those two categories really help each other in terms of driving the momentum forward," said Ferro.

The food category was also up for Disney this upfront, though the video games and tablet category was down, which Ferro attributed to tablet manufacturers like Leap Frog and Nabi sitting out the  upfront. "But toys and movie studios more than made up for the people that are out in this space," said Ferro. "And most of those toy deals included not only linear television but set-top box VOD, our Watch apps and new products that we're launching in the app space and video and gaming space."

Though cross-platform buys were a shift from how Disney conducted previous upfronts. "Unlike before, when you would negotiate the linear piece over here and then work with the agency and someone else to do the digital piece, now you saw them come together and really talk about video across all screens and really driving that opportunity forward," Ferro said.

While many upfront deals have shifted from C3 to C7 as the primary currency, Disney XD stuck with C3 deals, which continues to be standard for kids marketplace (Disney Channel and Disney Junior do not run commercials, instead relying on sponsorships).

In the next year, Disney Channel is relying on its beloved brands like Tangled and High School Musical, along with new apps, to connect with kids and their parents. The network also has big hopes for animated series Elena of Avador, featuring Disney's first Latina princess, which premieres July 22.

Despite Disney's upfront gains, Ferro anticipates that the scatter market will continue to be strong. "We're seeing new entrants into these main categories that are really spending more, they haven't necessarily spent in the upfront," she said, adding that holiday, Easter and back to school are big scatter drivers for kids networks. "There's defined seasonality in the kids place that always drives scatter separate from what we're seeing in the upfront," Ferro said.