Cable Weathers Shifting Metrics

Upfront take is up slightly over last year

The brave new world of shifting metrics hasn't prevented cable networks from posting healthy CPM (cost-per-thousand-viewer) increases in the quickly concluding upfront season. TBS and TNT, which expect to finish writing deals this week, saw increases of approximately 11% while Cartoon Network posted high-single-digit CPM pops.

Also logging increases were A&E (high single digits) and Lifetime (high single to low double digits); the latter opened its selling season with a multi-platform $70 million pact with Group M.

Although cable news networks generally start negotiations after the entertainment networks, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are figuring on a healthy season, with the 2008 election filling coffers with campaign-ad cash.

Overall, the cable upfront is expected to take in slightly more than last year's $7.3 billion total.

The currency for most deals, C3 (commercial-minute ratings with three days of DVR playback), is seen as less advantageous for cable networks, which see more viewer defection during commercials than broadcast does (8% vs. 5% for broadcast).

For MTV and VH1, that drop-off is 11%, which prompted MTV ad-sales chief Hank Close to provide buyers with business “guidelines,” including a loophole for revising ratings guarantees. MTV Networks is negotiating deals on multiple currencies. Turner's Cartoon Network also has written deals on both commercial and program ratings. Nickelodeon brokered a multi-platform deal with Starcom based on program ratings that included a research component to examine minute-by-minute commercial data.

The new metrics should spur a more refined approach to reaching consumers in an increasingly fragmented media environment.

“It'll be a long time before the 30-second spot is dead,” says Michael Lotito, partner at media-audit firm Media IQ. “What's got to change is the clutter of the environment. Running an ad pod with six or seven messages is not conducive to communication. Advertisers have to find different ways.”