Discovery Sees OK Upfront for Its Networks

Ad chief Joe Abruzzese thinks broadcasters' greed will help all cable nets
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Discovery Networks' new ad sales chief Joe Abruzzese last week scrapped the cable network's traditional annual detailed forecast for entire TV industry's upfront ad sales, saying privately that the Discovery is not in the business of issuing forecasts. (They used to be when Bill McGowan headed the ad department.)

But Abruzzese did make two bold predictions following Discovery's upfront presentation to advertisers. One is that cable networks would up sharply up their take this year, 20-30%, reversing the pricing rout they suffered at the hands of broadcast networks in 2002. And that Discovery Networks would keep pace, despite the recent 20% ratings drain seen by its flagship network, The Discovery Channel.

"The upfront's going to be strong," Abruzzese said, predicting "If the clients are right, the [broadcast] networks are going to set their prices too high" and ad buyers will turn to the major cable networks. That would mean an enormous jump from $4.5 billion to $5.4 billion-$5.9 billion.

About $300 million of cable's increased upfront can be justified by basic cable's increased viewership—up 7% or so for the season to date. Much of the rest will have to come from far stronger pricing.

What Discovery is pushing this year is its investment in original programming. Discovery Communications President Judith McHale proclaimed that while the "rest of the (television) world seems to be in a race for the bottom," DCI will invest in quality programming. That means committing $2.5 billion to develop programming over the next five years for its 13 U.S. networks, including Discovery Channel, TLC, Discovery Health and Travel Channel.

However, that seemingly huge amount breaks down an average of $500 million a year. That's just 20% more than Discovery spent on original programming in 2002.

The schedule will be broken up into themed nights, like "Monster Monday" anchored by fantasy car creation hit Monster Garage. That will be joined by spin-off Monster House, featuring wild renovations of people's houses rather than their cars or motorcycles. Discovery also has slated a special series Spy Masters
following recruits as they go through a faux spy school.

Discovery Networks President Billy Campell has long expressed concern that Discovery relied too much on "tentpole" events like the highly rated Shark Week. "We're trying to build a more regular schedule."

Campell also unveiled a new image campaign for Discovery Channel with commercials that will emphasize a new slogan, "Entertain Your Brain."

Separately, Court TV unveiled its pitch to advertisers for the upfront, spinning new research. The network programming positioning has evolved from "crime and justice" to "investigations," ala its biggest hit, Forensic Files.

The spin to advertisers is what CEO Henry Schlieff contends is his viewers' interests in "puzzle-solving, mystery and investigation," which means they're more likely to stick around through commercial breaks. With the aid of four ad agencies, Court TV commissioned an analysis of Nielsen data to determine which viewers stay with the network when the commercials come on.

The analysis found that 95% of its viewers stay tuned through commercials, higher than cable networks' average of 87% and the second-highest of any cable network. (Hallmark Channel is tops.)

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