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Big Plans for Small Networks

Cable operators’ new push to entice advertisers to buy broader and deeper 1/13/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Last month, ad-sales executives at Comcast Spotlight in Miami gathered to play a version of Jeopardy! they call the Spotlight Challenge. In this variation of the game, however, all the questions were designed to test their knowledge of various cable networks.

The game is part of a much larger Comcast Spotlight initiative to train and encourage cable-ad-sales executives to sell broader and deeper into systems’ inventories. Cable systems need to show clients the demographic advantages of buying a wide array of networks and dayparts, not just cable’s biggest brands.

The same push is going on at other cable systems, with the help of smaller cable networks that also need operators to understand their value. B&C profiles a few of these efforts in the pages to follow.

“It has always been easier to sell the top 10 or 15 networks,” says Rainbow Advertising Sales Corp. President/COO David Kline, who heads up the sales efforts at both Cablevision and Rainbow. “But there is only a finite amount of inventory on the ESPNs and TBSs of the world. We need to show our customers the value [in terms of both the audience reach and the pricing] of networks like Court TV and HGTV, that may not be so top-of-mind.”

At the same time, those smaller cable networks are trying to entice local cable operators by offering incentives or promotions that they can use as lures to advertisers.

OLN GOES LOCAL

In the cable-ad-sales game, the multibillion-dollar question of how fast local sales can increase in 2006 and beyond will revolve around similar efforts.

For example, at OLN (the new, shortened name for Outdoor Life Network) the staff mines U.S. business databases to find sports and hunting and fishing businesses nationwide. From that, they compile lists of names, phone numbers and key contacts of businesses ranging from bicycle shops to ski resorts and then hand them over to local cable companies in hopes of prompting new sales.

That’s a step beyond the prevailing cable-network approach of recommending broad business categories, like automotive or health services, as favorable fits for local advertising.

But Pam Jensen, OLN’s Chicago-based VP of affiliate sales, figures she has to go beyond the norm to persuade cable systems and interconnects to devote serious efforts to selling OLN. In some cases, OLN staffers even ride along with cable-advertising account executives to pitch local businesses on the network. And OLN has added incentive because it picked up rights to the National Hockey League this season, boosting the network’s profile.

The unusual efforts reflect the reality of business life for so-called second-tier networks that are outside a core group of cable channels— ESPN, USA Network and TNT—that produce a disproportionate share of local-advertising revenue.

“We’re in a field of about 45 to 50 networks that are trying to do local-ad insertion,” says Jensen.

But the efforts are paying off: Affiliates reaching 8 million homes added OLN as a local-advertising option last year, raising the network’s local- ad universe to 26 million homes.

“If operators want to maintain their growth, they have to learn how to sell deeper and broader into their inventory,” notes Griffin Media Research President Bennett Griffin, who offers training and research designed to help systems boost their ad sales.

Compensation plans will need to be changed so sales executives don’t simply focus on easy sales of high-profile networks. And operators face the huge task of teaching clients the value of video-on-demand and other relatively new advertising platforms.

To help educate sales staffs, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau and CTAM (Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing) will launch EncycloMedia, an online service that provides examples of sponsorship opportunities.

Better research is helping overcome some challenges. The rollout of local people meters has generally hurt broadcast-TV ratings while increasing cable’s overall audience share and, for the first time, providing significantly better ratings for smaller networks and non-prime time dayparts, Kline argues.

“Having much more accurate research has been extremely valuable,” says Tom Forst, regional VP of Cox Media, the ad-sales arm for Cox Communications.

SELLING BEYOND TOP-TIER

Major operators have also been investing in tools that tap into research and other data so that sales staffs can craft better packages.

Cox Media Director of Research and Sales Development Nicole Buie notes that the operator began thinking about selling deeper in 2002 and began an initiative in 2003 to train staff to sell beyond the top-tier networks into additional networks.

“As a result of that,” she says, “we’ve seen higher sellout [of inventory] in the other networks.”

Additional reporting by Stewart Schley

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