For those whose fortunes are aligned with TV ad

For those whose fortunes are aligned with TV ad sales, there came a moment during the cable upfront of 2006 where the marketplace began to assume the deliberate pace of a daytime soap opera, as any move toward advancing the narrative was stalled by (metaphorical) organ swells and the odd exchange of meaningful glances. The conversation between media buyers and network ad sales execs stretched from mid-March through the end of summer. This year, the drama promises to unfold earlier than ever before, as Oxygen Media announced it would hold its first official upfront presentation on Jan. 23, a good four months before the broadcast nets kick off the selling season.

Nothing will cause more frisson in this year’s cable ad sales market than the intro of commercial ratings as trading currency, a system that Nielsen Media Research claims will be in place by April 24. Media buyers say the target date will not give them sufficient time to analyze the minute-by-minute data to their satisfaction, while many network ad sales chiefs believe that although they may be cutting it close, there will be sufficient preliminary data available with which to serve clients looking to buy time based on the controversial ratings.

Although the upfront could prove to be even more protracted than last year’s scrum, year-over-year growth should continue to be healthy if not spectacular. Auto spending should limp along in 2007––Merrill Lynch projects overall growth of 1.6 percent in the category—while Anheuser-Busch has vowed to go after the sports opportunities. By and large, Wall Street anticipates continued year-over-year growth for cable this year. Merrill forecasts cable can be expected to grow by 5.8 percent, to $26.5 billion, down from an earlier prediction of 6 percent.

Cable continues to lag far behind the broadcast nets in terms of its share of prime-time ad dollars. According to Nielsen data crunched by Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag, although cable captured a 55.5 percent share of the overall prime-time audience, the measured nets are getting a mere 31 percent of advertisers’ prime-time spend, versus the 69 percent that goes to broadcast.

Perhaps the biggest question facing cable will be answered as early as next week, when The Sopranos makes its ad-supported cable debut. While A&E made a gamble with its $200 million investment in the HBO drama, one buyer said the series is selling steadily, with sponsors like Ford and Paramount on board for the premiere. “You’re probably going to see a lot of people waiting out on the sidelines to see if this is going to click,” said the buyer. “There are an awful lot of people who didn’t catch it on HBO the first time around … and an awful lot of clients who want to get in with Tony Soprano.”