Cable Networks Rethink Upfronts

A&E, National Geographic and others try more-intimate ways to sell

Turner Broadcasting caused a stir last week with plans to ditch its glitzy upfront stage production in favor of smaller, intimate affairs in five cities.

Turner, whose past few Madison Square Garden Theater presentations to advertisers have featured Sting, the Eagles and Lenny Kravitz, isn't the only cable group eschewing ostentatious presentations. Fox Cable Networks, A&E and others are also choosing more-interactive affairs to woo advertisers.

The smaller presentations come as cable networks face increasing pressure from competing media outlets. Cable networks say the new formats save clients time and offer the chance to more fully explain their innovative options for advertisers, such as custom vignettes or spots on new broadband or VOD channels.

They say they can also solicit feedback from media buyers, rather than simply trying to wow them by trotting stars out on stage. "We want to talk about the real benefits to advertisers of advertising on our networks as opposed to that traditional statement of 'here's our development. We've increased our audiences. Aren't we great,'" says Mel Berning, executive VP of ad sales for A&E Television Networks.

A&E is skipping a big upfront party in favor of smaller breakfast meetings in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, which talent may or may not attend.

The Fox Cable entertainment networks are throwing intimate "engagement parties" for their advertising clients, promoting a new metric they've created to measure viewer engagement with their programming and others'. The index, which mixes data from Nielsen, Simmons, Beta and Myers studies, will be on the agenda at the smaller soirees starting in March.

"This is something you can't really just give in a ballroom," says Bruce Lefkowitz, executive VP of ad sales for Fox Cable Networks Operations. "It's hard to convey in four minutes at a podium in front of 300 drunken people."

Fox Cable's FX and National Geographic Channel are working out details. Options under consideration include giving advertisers crystal Champagne glasses or blue Tiffany boxes and showing clips of network stars, like The Shield's Glen Close, discussing their "betrothed" relationships with their networks.

Comcast has always held small presentations for its networks, which include E!, Style, G4, Versus and several networks without a linear component. At first, that was a budget-driven choice, but Comcast kept the hour-long, in-house presentations after they proved popular with time-strapped clients.

"It was difficult in the early days of E! to compete on a cost- per-shrimp basis with MTV," jokes Dave Cassaro, president of Comcast Network Advertising Sales. "Increasingly, people's time is compromised—how many parties can you go to and still do your job?"

Not about the money

Not all networks are doing away with showy upfronts. Lifetime, which last year featured a performance by American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, still plans a big shindig this year, as does Discovery. Others are still deciding.

The networks say the changes aren't about cost-cutting. Although a showy cable upfront could run $1 million- $2 million, that's a minor cost compared with what they bring in advertising. Several smaller presentations around the country could cost just as much.

Cable networks are changing their upfronts as many are now big enough to premiere original series throughout the year. With year-round production and advertisers interested in integrating products, networks have to make deals outside the traditional spring upfront window.

Turner, for example, has already shored up Toyota as exclusive sponsor of the commercial-free third-season premiere of TNT hit The Closer. Kellogg and T-Mobile have signed on for product integration. The series doesn't return until June, but production is under way now, so the deals had to get done, says David Levy, president of Turner Entertainment Ad Sales and Marketing.

Adds Turner Entertainment Ad Sales and Marketing Executive VP Linda Yaccarino, "Upfront negotiation is really just a tactical price discussion. It's really not about ideas or co-marketing or launching a program together. Our team's not putting all our eggs in the upfront or living and dying by this May/June window where the transactions take place."