As the broadcast networks scurry to rework their presentations in the wake of the writers' strike, cable programmers seem ready for their close-up.
With broadcast ratings dipping by double digits even before the strike impact hit, the cable networks collectively claimed more than half of primetime's audience and many posted their best ratings ever this quarter. That has left cable networks, about two-thirds of which have already presented their big stage shows to advertisers, bullish.
Turner has scheduled the New York stage show for its three entertainment networks—TNT, TBS and TruTV—on May 14, during broadcast's upfront week. The company has long pushed the concept of “one TV world” in which broadcast and cable nets should be treated with parity in terms of CPM.
The networks that have presented so far have focused more on TV programming than they did last year, when multi-platform mania seemed to spread like a virus through cable marketers' ranks, prompting them to headline all the digital extensions they could offer advertisers.
“As the broadcast ratings continue to erode and cable continues to rise, buyers should be buying a one-television world and putting all their money into one television pool, and I'd like to play in it,” says Turner Broadcasting Sales/Turner Sports President David Levy. “I'm not saying not to buy broadcast television—in fact, it should be part of the mix. It's just that an over-reliance on broadcast could be costly.”
Echoes Mel Berning, A&E Television Networks ad sales executive VP: “The biggest discussion point we have with most buyers is really around the changing value propositions between broadcast and cable. If you look at the redistribution of ratings particularly over the last year, you only have this accelerating trend of viewership change away from broadcast and really accruing to cable.”
Cable networks enter the upfront with added strength from high scatter prices during the past several quarters—meaning buyers were forced to pay a premium because they didn't lock in during the upfront.
Getting top billing during this year's cable upfronts is original programming, of which there's never been more. Bravo said it has enough originals—12 returning shows and four new projects— to program Monday as a fourth night of originals. Turner's TNT has vowed to make 80% of its primetime schedule originals by the year 2010.
Discovery announced some 200 new original series or specials for 2008-2009 across its portfolio of cable channels. That includes shows with top-name talent, such as Adrian Grenier, Emeril Lagasse and Joey Fatone. Lifetime led its upfront show by touting its coup from the previous week of snagging the smash hit reality show Project Runway, which has run for four seasons on Bravo. The network announced plans for two companion shows, as well as burgeoning development slates of scripted series and movies, including projects with Kelly Preston, Candace Bushnell and Christine Ebersole.
USA packed its upfront with top-tier talent from its slate of current scripted series, including Debra Messing, who will star in a series version of last year's Starter Wife limited series. And A&E, which holds its upfront with sister channel History on April 28, is set to kick off the summer with its Andromeda Strain miniseries in May and lead in to this summer's Cleaner, the Benjamin Bratt drama that marks the network's first return to programming original scripted series in years.
“At the same time that you've got this viewership shift to cable, you've got more and more investment on the cable side in original programming,” says AETN's Berning. “Broadcast is struggling against these real economic issues and viewership issues, and at the same time cable is investing really, really heavily in programming to be able to capture commitment from viewers on its own.”
Cable networks continue to try to sate advertisers' appetites for digital content, but whereas last year's upfront stage shows were packed with promises of multi-platform offerings, this year they have so far been more focused on programming for linear TV. Networks have successfully demonstrated to advertisers their commitment to programming on new media and are now working to gain deeper understanding of just what works on those platforms, executives say. That takes some of the pressure off publicly decreeing that commitment.
Nonetheless, up to 10% of cable entertainment networks' upfront business is likely to be conducted on multi-platform deals, or what many are calling “360-degree experiences.” To that end, many have spent the last year acquiring sites that expand their digital reach.
Lifetime last year relaunched its Website as Mylifetime.com and partnered with Glam Media, the online network of more than 400 women-focused sites, to expand its reach. At its upfront this year, the network announced a co-branded vertical network of sites with Glam that it says would offer advertisers a reach of more than five million unique visitors a month. The network also announced plans for more than 15 Web-only series and new user-generated content applications and blogs.
Discovery and others also bought sites to complement their own. Discovery bought HowStuffWorks.com for $250 million last October and has spent the last several months populating the Wikipedia competitor's pages with content from its own shows. Scripps bought sites including Recipezaar and Pickle to go with its own, such as HGTV.com and FoodNetwork.com.
“I think advertisers in this upfront, more than any other, are looking for ideas and opportunities that stand out among the clutter and the din and that break through to the audience,” says Steve Gigliotti, executive VP of ad sales for Scripps Networks. Scripps has done far-ranging deals in the past years with partners including T.G.I. Friday's and Tostitos, integrating their brands with talent like Guy Fieri and Ingrid Hoffman on TV, online, on-site and on packaging. “[Advertisers want] ideas that are linked in multi-platform sort of ways so that the audience gets an impact that registers on the Richter scale after the campaign is over.”
This upfront cycle has focused heavily on engagement. Networks are promising buyers that they have viewers who pay attention to their content in a fractured landscape. Overhanging last year's upfront was the change to measuring viewing based on a C3 metric that included three days of DVR playback. Now with a year of that data, advertisers are demanding even more granularity into viewers' attentiveness, like engagement.
“We're not having to deal with the eccentricities of a migration to C3 data, so it feels a little bit more like an upfront market that is going to be focused on clients' marketing needs and strategies rather than the measurement and the ratings service,” says Steve Mandala, executive VP of cable ad sales for NBC Universal.
Discovery has been working with IAG on engagement research and says it will most likely start selling on the metric. Scripps says it will guarantee select deals based on engagement. AMC partnered with Nielsen to offer advertisers a new “Ad Vantage” metric, which it says measures engagement and receptivity to ads. The network also pitched advertisers on the Audience Identity Metric, a measurement of viewers' behavioral preferences.
Cable programmers are also trying new ways to integrate advertisers' brands into custom content. In an effort to pitch themselves as flexible partners cognizant of advertisers' needs, networks are creating for clients both short- and longform ads, as well as full-length series that feature their brands.
Discovery's in-house studio created ads for General Motors at a lower price than an agency would charge, and is pitching the same idea for its Planet Green network, launching in June. AETN is offering “blended entertainment” opportunities. It worked out a deal with car rental firm Enterprise, while will exclusively sponsored History's miniseries Battle 360. Enteprise's founder was a fighter pilot in World War II.
Most of all, cable networks continue to pitch their strong brands. USA's upfront message was about the network's “brandwidth,” contending the “Characters Welcome” slogan resonates with viewers, says USA/Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer.
Fellow NBCU cable network Bravo stressed its portfolio of shows and its value as a bigger “Bravo Media” brand with extensions into consumer products.
“We've got digital so ingrained in our DNA that we've kind of got that down and we're getting back to focusing on our brands, which go hand in hand with our programming and the multiple platforms on which we distribute those programs and exercise those brands,” says NBCU's Mandala. “There's a real power in cable right now. When you take the growing ratings and combine them with the very strong brands generally associated with cable, I think it's going to be a very strong upfront.”