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Cable Sales Keep Climbing

After being an afterthought in the upfront market, cable nets are benefiting from the short supply of spots on their broadcast rivals. Scatter pricing on the largest cable nets is strongly ahead of expectations, with sales executives reporting pricing 8-12% ahead of what they were getting in the upfront market. "We had been expecting 5-6%," said Mark Lazarus, president, Turner Entertainment Group sales and marketing.

One buyer says some niche networks are seeing 20% above upfront prices. But broadcast networks are able to sell scatter at 20-30% premiums to upfront.

Because the upfront was so strong for broadcasters, the Big Four committed an unusually large amount of inventory, shrinking the supply for fourth-quarter scatter. But the broadcast networks are generally also underperforming on advertisers' expectations (particularly Fox, but not The WB). Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau Chairman Joe Ostrow estimates the shortfall at around 5%. That means even more broadcast network spots will be soaked up by make-goods.

So cable is getting the spill-over. Though upfront pricing was flat or down for the biggest nets, they're getting better deals now.

"There's hardly anything left for the holidays," said Lynn Picard, Lifetime Television executive VP of advertising sales. First-quarter pricing looks strong, and buyers are looking to cut scatter deals with the first and second quarters combined. The big questions are whether car companies can continue heavy discounting and whether the recession will finally begin to slam consumer spending the way it has hit capital investments.