Cable, Syndication Vie For Remains Of Upfront Pie

Fox and CW completed their upfront selling last week, with the other broadcast networks expected to be done early this week, including ABC, which sources close to the negotiations said was further along than most industry observers thought.

Fox nailed down $1.8 billion in prime-time sales, $200 million more than last year, while CW—which will debut in September—took in $650 million, about $40 million more than the WB sold in last year’s upfront. UPN sold about $200 million in last year’s upfront.

Fox sold its inventory at average cost-per-thousand rate hikes of 2 percent over last year, and sold about 2 percent to 3 percent more inventory (about 75 percent of its total) than in ’05. Also accounting for the volume pop were higher prices charged for megahit American Idol.

The CW sold about 83 percent to 85 percent of its total inventory in the upfront, sources said, similar to what the WB sold last year.

CW’s first upfront was a bit challenged due to the marriage of programming from the WB and UPN. While the network did deals with most of the same advertisers for returning WB and UPN shows, the demos for those shows are very different. Returning WB shows skew more young, white and female, while returning UPN scripted shows appeal to more young, black and Hispanic women. And the CW will also be airing WWE (wrestling), which skews young and male.

Despite the difficulty in comparing WB and UPN’s respective 2006 CPM, sources familiar with the negotiations said CPM increases were 1 percent to 2 percent above what WB wrote last year.

ABC, CBS and NBC were all close to done as last week ended, with ABC doing deals at 3 percent to 4 percent CPM hikes, CBS in the 0 percent to 2 percent range and NBC selling at 5 percent lower than last year.

While the broadcast networks were winding down, the syndication upfront, surprisingly, was heating up, with several major agencies in conversations with a number of top syndication sales groups. At least one syndicator said it has done some early business. No details on price were available, and most of the discussions have not gotten as far as pricing. Most agencies were making inquiries about how much top-rated syndicated programming they can get in packages.

“Some reach-out is being made to syndication,” one media agency executive confirmed. “We are more interested in the higher-tier shows, and when we do deals will depend on pricing. But if the syndicators can offer us aggressive pricing, we could be spending money there before cable.”

Earlier this spring, Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau president/CEO Sean Cunningham was particularly bullish in assessing cable’s prospects in the upfront, predicting that the total cable market would grow by $500 million to $750 million over last year’s $6.5 billion take, a dollar hike between 7.7 percent and 11.5 percent. Last week, Cunningham said he’s sticking to his earlier projections, saying, “Things are unfolding much like we thought they would. So slow and steady is pretty much where we thought we’d be.”

Syndication will have “no effect whatsoever on cable,” said an ad sales chief at a top-rated cable network. “We don’t feel pinched by syndication in any way, shape or form.”

Cable sales execs said they won’t rush into deals. “On CPMs, it’ll be anywhere from down 5 percent in the more extreme cases, to up 2 percent anywhere you have people tuning in on a regular basis,” said one leading sales executive. “Those aren’t exactly stampede numbers.”