1 Trillion Reasons to Fine-TuneAdvertising Sales Strategies

Networks targeting African-American viewers fight for slices of spending power

The proliferation of networks aimed at luring African-American TV viewers has exploded in the last few years, and advertisers are buying in—literally. As this year’s upfront advertising negotiations get under way, executives from black-centric networks are reporting strong positive responses from clients and agencies.

Advertisers know that African-Americans spend some $1 trillion annually, and they are willing to spread their dollars around to reach those consumers. But the networks approached the market in different ways leading up to the annual process.

Upstart networks Aspire and GMC TV (the latter of which will soon be renamed UP) kicked off their upfront presentations in March with the launch of the traveling “Upfront Bus.” The bus tour began in New York City, eventually visiting seven cities. The company had hundreds of client meetings along the way, according to Brad Siegel, vice chairman of GMC. (GMC handles all of Aspire’s ad sales, but the companies are marketed separately.) This is Aspire’s second upfront, having secured seven charter advertisers. Aspire has added other networks and expects its advertiser list to grow substantially this year.

“We told our stories to new and old advertisers, and the response was phenomenal,” Siegel says. “We’re beginning to do deals, and we’ve had tremendous interest from advertisers in new categories.”

Aspire, launched by basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, has a slew of new and original shows on tap this year. GMC’s upfront has been equally satisfactory so far, Siegel notes. Although the network is more broad-based, the channel has always done well with African-American audiences, he notes. (On the bus tour, one side of the bus was all about Aspire; the other focused on GMC.)

Looking to Be No. One

TV One shook things up a bit this year for its upfront presentations. After two years of staging one large upfront event in New York City, the network took a different approach to better communicate its message to advertisers, says Keith Bowen, chief revenue officer. TV One took 100 ad executives to Florida for two and a half days to educate and immerse them into the net’s programming and philosophy. The purpose was to tell the execs what TV One was planning and get some solid feedback at the same time. The network also conducted several one-on-one meetings with agency execs around the country.

After the deep-dive confab, TV One sent out surveys to participants to gauge their reaction to the process. “We were pleasantly surprised by the results,” Bowen says. “We received A+ ratings across the board. We asked about the travel, the amenities, the presentation [and] got feedback on our strategy and progress.

“You just don’t get the kind of feedback you need and want with those big events,” Bowen adds. “It’s too soon to tell how the entire season will shape up, since the upfront season still has a couple of months ahead of it. But we think we’ll do it again this way next year. It was worth the time and investment and gave us the opportunity to get to know each other better.”

This is Bounce’s first upfront season, but the executives in charge of luring ad dollars are long-time veterans of the industry who understand what advertisers want and need. It also helps when the product is exceeding expectations, says COO Jonathan Katz, who was with Turner Broadcasting before joining the nascent Bounce.

Big Bounce Theory

The over-the-air network, which launched in September 2011, is currently in 24 of the top 25 African- American markets in the country and is available to 86% of African-American TV homes. Ratings are exceeding expectations, Katz says, adding that the response from advertisers to Bounce’s programming lineup and business plan has been strong.

The network opted for individual meetings with clients and agencies instead of a big, splashy upfront presentation in New York City, says Dennis Ray, Bounce executive president of ad sales. A longtime ad sales veteran with stints at Fox and NBC, Ray has participated in his fair share of upfronts over the years. By the time it’s all said and done, Katz and Ray expect to rack up about 30 one-on-one meetings by the first of June.

“This upfront has given us the opportunity to show people the breadth of our distribution and solid ratings trends, as well as give them a peek at our new original programming,” Ray says. Bounce will introduce 12 new original shows this season, translating into 100 hours of content, Katz says. Advertisers want more flexibility in how their products are presented, he adds, noting that 30-second spots are beginning to lose their luster in favor of more creative efforts such as product placement and even show sponsorships. Bounce viewers will see that when the network launches Forever Jones Presented by Walmart on June 5 at 9 p.m. ET. “Advertisers increasingly want to own content,” Ray says.

BET, the granddaddy of African-American networks, held three upfront presentations this year: lunches in Los Angeles and Chicago and an evening presentation at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Musicians Chaka Khan, Kierra Sheard and Miguel performed at the respective events. The theme this year: “You Look Better on BET.”

BET executives highlighted recently conducted third-party research from NewMediaMetrics, advocating that African-Americans are more emotionally attached to the BET Networks brand than to any other TV network. BET is also hyping four new original shows slated to debut between now and first-quarter 2014. The NewMediaMetrics study measured more than 360 brands and 400 media outlets including TV networks, websites, print publications, sports and tentpole properties, according to BET Networks representative Shekina Liverpool.