Cable Faces Tough Sell

With so many television entities chasing fewer dollars this year during the upfront, last year’s most successful cable networks in terms of ratings gains may, ironically, have the toughest time garnering their piece of the pie.

“The issue is that in this competitive marketplace with everybody going after share, to have audience growth forces you to be all that more aggressive to get your share,” said Donna Salvatore, CEO of MediaVest, noting that Lifetime has had a 15 percent increase in 18-49- year-old impressions. “What [an unfortunate] year to have [such a success],” she said.

Sales executives seem to understand that this year will be different. “The toughest decision this year is where to put the money and make it work the best for you,” said Lynn Picard, senior vp of sales for Lifetime. “It may mean that some networks will get cut out in favor of others, but I think we are in a position to weather the storm…we are not going to gouge anyone over rates.”

Myriad variables have been up in the air going into the upfront this year. Chief among them is a soft economy that has advertisers uneasy about committing dollars anywhere until the broadcast networks unveil their prime-time schedules next week. While one cable sales exec bets broadcast will raise CPMs (cost-per-thousand) and drive money back to cable, it is likely that broadcast will be reasonably priced and ad dollars will be placed there first, perhaps leaving fewer dollars available for cable and syndication.

There are no sure bets this year, but niche networks with a pure advertiser base, like MTV and Food Network, are expected to fare well. FX, which has added Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Practice to its schedule, may gain share, buyers said.

Still, the majority of fully distributed networks are likely to have a tough selling season. Facing the dollar crunch, it is expected that most top-tier networks will opt to increase their share of the marketplace this year, rather than impose hefty CPM increases on advertisers like they did in the 2000 boom marketplace.

In light of last year’s increases, buyers are saying that cable sales execs need to understand that inventory needs to be more realistically priced. One agency executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added that some major cable networks shut out some loyal, but low-end clients last year in order to accommodate high-paying dot-com/technology advertisers, and that it may come back to haunt them — or coax them into cutting cheaper deals.

“Options are going to the major point of negotiations this year,” said Picard, noting that both broadcast and cable networks will be less flexible than they were last year about giving advertisers an option to cancel orders. “The advertisers are not going to like that, but they want low rates and added-value, too — something has got to give.”

–with John Consoli