While it may be hyperbolic to label 2005 an annus

While it may be hyperbolic to label 2005 an annus horribilis as far as the cable ad marketplace is concerned, it’s not a stretch to suggest that most network ad sales executives aren’t going to look back on last year with anything resembling fondness.

If the upfront is the barometer by which cable measures its fiscal well-being, then ’05 saw the needle drop precipitously, as anticipated sales increases in the low double digits failed to materialize. In August, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau presented its final tally of the year’s upfront totals: a smidgen over $6.5 billion, an increase of $300 million or 5 percent over what the cable nets took in during the 2004 upfront. Most ad sales execs were only able to wring out meager cost-per-thousand increases in the 1 percent to 3 percent range.

While those stats cast a pall over cable, the latter part of ’05 saw an uptick in the scatter market that is expected to carry over into 2006. Although Wall Street expects some sluggishness in the auto and entertainment categories, analysts predict some year-over-year growth. Bob Coen, svp and forecasting director at Universal McCann, projected total U.S. ad spending growth to reach 5.8 percent in ’06, with cable up 7 percent. Merrill Lynch forecasts a 4.5 percent rise, with cable up 7.7 percent.

Media agencies will begin nudging clients toward nontraditional marketing, although the dollars taken off the cable pile shouldn’t add up to a huge loss in 2006.

If a Goldilocks economy (not too hard, not too soft) threatens to weigh heavily on cable’s ad-sales business, 2006 may be the year the industry begins to distance itself from its alternative distribution rivals. Yankee Group senior analyst Adi Kishore notes that “the last two quarters haven’t been very good for DirecTV and Dish Network,” adding that cable’s triple-play bundle of digital video, phone and high-speed Internet service has “begun having an impact.”

Perhaps the biggest issue facing cable is the a la carte issue, which was brought back into light in November when FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that he considered backing such a pricing plan. While Time Warner Cable and Comcast countered with mollifying family-tier options, almost no one expects the FCC to press a la carte into service any time soon. “Mandating a la carte would be a tremendously complex, controversial and likely litigious process with unclear consumer benefits,” Banc of America Securities analyst Doug Shapiro said.

Politics aside, the byword for 2006 is moderation. Kishore warned that this year would see “no radical shifts” in VOD availability and usage, and while DVRs may break the fabled 20 million mark, advertisers needn’t despair just yet.