The Upfronts Cometh

MTV, TV One, Current make early dates with buyers to begin pitches for next season

Why This Matters

Early Birds

Where and when MTV, TV One and Current plan February events in New York City to rally interest in upfront sales.

TV One: Feb. 2, lunch, Cipriani
MTV: Feb. 2, evening, Hammerstein Ballroom
Current: Feb. 9, evening, Paley Center for Media

The long upfront season is about to officially begin.

Three cable networks will mount presentations in early February aimed at catching the attention of media buyers and planners and garnering a bigger share of the $16 billion upfront pie when the actual negotiating takes place in May and June.

MTV, which staged upfront event on the same date (Feb. 2) last year, has the cast of Jersey Shore lined up to draw an expected crowd of 1,000 to its shindig at the Hammerstein Ballroom. This year, two networks that usually command less attention than MTV are jumping on the February bandwagon—TV One, which is holding its first large upfront gathering, and Current, which did not have one in 2010.

As usual, the broadcast networks will wrap up the exhausting upfront marathon the week of May 16. For the third year running, Fox will kick off the week on Monday with a presentation and party, followed by ABC on Tuesday and CBS on Wednesday. NBC, which gave up its Monday beachhead, says it’s waiting for the Comcast deal to close before announcing its plans.

Besides sending an “Oh my God, is it that time of the year already?” chill up buyers’ spines, MTV, TV One and Current are hoping that by jumping on the calendar before the rush, they will have a better chance of having their message heard.

“My thought was to be out there before all of the other upfront events, to get TV One top of mind before all that other upfront noise begins,” says Keith Bowen, chief revenue officer of TV One, which is holding a luncheon at Manhattan’s Cipriani restaurant on Feb. 2.

“It’s important that we tell our story early, because we have a lot to accomplish,” says Ken Ripley, executive VP for ad sales at Current, which will take over the Paley Center Feb. 9. “We’re repositioning the network and how we program it. We need to alert people to the fact that we’re rated, and we need to do it in such a way that people will know to plan for us. We participated in the upfront last year for the first time and had some success. But this is a year that we want to step up.”

The early-bird strategy can work if the timing is just right. “The earlier you do it, you do run the risk of getting people who really aren’t in that [upfront] mindset yet,” says John Muszynski, chief investment officer of Starcom MediaVest Group’s SMGX unit and a veteran of many upfront events.

Muszynski isn’t sure networks need extravagant parties to tell their stories. “I am a killjoy. It used to be we’d go to eight or nine of these a year. Now you could go to 50,” he says.

But attending meetings with the networks is important. “In many cases, it’s something small that is said at one of these events that sparks an idea and you take it back to one of your clients and say this is an opportunity we want to pursue,” Muszynski says.

TV One is calling its event a programming showcase. “It’s really an opportunity to connect people who aren’t necessarily our core viewers with all the great things we’re doing at the network,” Bowen says. The network’s ratings were up 17% last year, and Bowen says revenue was up 20%.

TV One will be using the theme “Experience Black.” “We’re not just about music, we’re not just about politics. We’re kind of a holistic approach to the African- American Experience,” Bowen says.

Bowen says he’d be happy with a gathering of about 175 to 225 planners, buyers and clients. He also hopes to see the entertainment division executives at the media agencies, to get them excited about integration opportunities on the network.

Current founders Al Gore and Joel Hyatt will be on hand as the network tells about 250 top buyers and clients about its shift from short-form viewer-created content to long-form programming, including its new crowd-sourced series Bar Karma. The network will also talk about its viewer-created ad messages initiative and other ways it can create content for its sponsors, Ripley says.

Meanwhile, invites to MTV’s presentation promise “millennial insights, new programming, musical performance, killer party.” Get your laundry done and start working on your tan.

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette