AMC Networks Sets Big-Tent Upfront

Original programming across all channels is focus of its pitch to media buyers

AMC Networks wants media buyers to see that it’s more than just The Walking Dead.

For the first time, the programmer is planning to hold a big upfront event that will highlight the original programming on all of its networks—AMC, WE tv, IFC, SundanceTV and BBC America.

In the past couple of years, AMC Networks had invited media agencies to individual dinners. It also staged smaller events to show off new programs on IFC and WE tv. Before that, AMC held memorable events that drew media buyers to meet the cast of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and its other shows.

“Buyers and clients remind me of that,” Scott Collins, president of ad sales at AMC Networks, said. “That was the can’t-miss event of that season. And we thought, this is probably a time to build on that.”

AMC Networks built the flagship AMC service from a network that showed old movies into the home of some of TV’s most acclaimed original shows. More recently, the company has been moving to stock its other networks with the kind of high-quality original programming that attracts premium advertising rates.

So while having focused conversations at dinners paid off, Collins said “the thinking is, this year felt like the right opportunity to go a little bigger and celebrate the extraordinary range of quality content that we have not only on AMC but across the portfolio, and that this is a moment that we want to make sure our buyers and the ad community are fully aware of that.”

The event will be held the evening of Thursday, April 6. AMC is not yet disclosing the venue it will use.

Some cable networks have stopped putting on glitzy upfront events for media buyers, focusing on more custom-built presentations for specific agencies and their clients. Discovery Networks, FX Networks and A+E Networks employ that approach.

This year, Viacom will have big events for Nickelodeon and BET, but will hold dinners for the rest of its portfolio headed by the company’s new CEO, Bob Bakish, and new head of ad sales Sean Moran, who will lay out their strategy for rebuilding core networks MTV and Comedy Central, which have been struggling.

So to a certain extent, AMC Networks is bucking a trend at a time when it seems that media buyers have more choices, more pressure and less time than ever.

“We’re respectful of the time the people give us when we come,” Collins said.

“We’re not going to focus so much on what they know us for. We want to really roll out and inform them about what the next new shows are across the various properties,” he said. “We want to highlight and make sure people are aware of everything across the various networks. We are more than just AMC obviously. We’re more than just one show and it’s really important for everyone to appreciate that.”

Among the new shows that viewers will get a first peek at during the upfront event will be The Son, starring Pierce Brosnan as patriarch of a Texas cattle empire, and The Terror, an anthology series about a Royal Navy expedition crew attacked by a mysterious predator.

AMC has been selling its networks as a portfolio for several years. With The Walking Dead’s high ratings and devoted fans, it commands the kind of high prices on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) viewers basis as primetime shows on the broadcast networks. It will also seek premium rates for its other original programming.

Though still a big hit, The Walking Dead’s ratings have been declining, cutting into ad-revenue growth. MoffettNathanson senior research analyst Michael Nathansonsaid AMC Networks expects to finish the year with a 4% increase in ad revenue. Fourth-quarter sales will be flat because of lower ratings at its two biggest networks, AMC and WE tv.

The focus on programming could also run contrary to the growing role data plays in targeting consumers and locating audiences. But Collins said “all the metrics and measurement really have to start with compelling content and it has to start with that investment in connecting with fans. All the rest is sort of wasteful if it doesn’t start with the best content available.”

This upfront will also be the first one for AMC Networks since Collins succeeded Arlene Manos as president of ad sales. But Collins said he’s not going to do anything to call attention to himself.

“It’s not really about me,” he said. “It’s about our content.”