Better scene is no herd

Cable networks are skipping parties in favor of one-on-ones

Less style, more substance. That's the strategy for this year's cable upfront presentations. Many networks are forgoing splashy parties for rank-and-file media buyers, opting instead for intimate meetings with agency execs and their clients.

Last year, cable's upfront take dropped an estimated $600 million, from $4.6 billion to $4 billion. Early predictions peg this year's take at slightly better (up less than 5%) or flat.

Buyers and seller think the deals will get done sooner than last year. They estimate that this upfront could break in late June or early July.

That's still later than the traditional signing period. "The days of the May-June down-and-dirty are over," says Michael Sakin, Game Show Network senior VP of ad sales. "Nobody feels, if they don't jump, they are going to miss something anymore."

But there will be differences from the go-go days. Whereas 2001 was a buyer's market, the advantage could shift to favor networks this year. "Demand is building, and advertisers' wallets seem to be prying open a little more easily," says Thomas Weisel Partners' analyst Gordon Hodge.

Smaller meetings may be easier on network coffers, but ad-sales execs say they are also far more valuable.

"You can't run the risk of doing a 500- person ballroom presentation, hoping 250 people turn out and that they are the right 250 people," says Fox Cable advertising-sales chief Bruce Lefkowitz.

Lefkowitz, who recently defected from Discovery, will instead lead his staff through 150 individual calls for both Fox-partnered National Geographic and FX.

Also taking this approach: Discovery Networks, USA and Sci Fi, Rainbow Network, Hallmark, Game Show Network, and Lifetime. Several will make upfront presentations to the press as well.

Turner Broadcasting will go door-to-door, too, but TBS and TNT are still toying with the idea of an April event.

Agency execs don't exactly miss the schmooze. "It's one thing to look at programming with a drink in your hand, but, if they have a story to tell, it's a good idea to present one by one," says OMD USA Director of National Broadcast Chris Geraci.

A few big names are still staging parties, notably MTV Networks, Comedy Central and ABC Family.