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Cable upfront wins the battle for bucks

The cable upfront advertising market moved last week, for the first time, well ahead of the broadcast network prime time sales market. Cable executives and ad buyers say cable's upfront take this year will be in the $4.5 billion to $4.7 billion range, between 25% and 30% ahead of last year.

Cable executives say most of that increase is coming from advertisers shifting pieces of their broadcast budgets to cable. Officials at Turner say their entertainment cable networks-TNT and TBS-are getting double-digit price increases. Many clients are spending 30% to 50% more on the Turner networks this year versus last, said Liz Janneman, executive vice president, Turner Entertainment Sales.

The two Turner networks expect to be about 75% sold by week's end, Janneman said. "Last week the dam broke. We're in discussions with or have concluded deals with every major agency."

Lifetime, helped by strong interest in its new City Lights, starring Nancy McKeon and Bonnie Bedelia, also reports big budget increases from clients (in excess of 30% in some cases) and price increases in the mid-teens. "We started writing a lot of business last week," said Lynn Picard, executive vice president, sales, Lifetime.

As to why the bulk of the cable money moved first this year, Picard noted, "The value of cable networks has increased so much the past couple of years it's just a good deal to buy cable."

Turner's Janneman said the huge budget increases cable is getting means advertisers are shifting dollars out of broadcast. Clients aren't boosting their overall budgets by 30%. "More advertisers are shifting dollars from broadcast to cable." Most of those shifted dollars are targeted to the top tier of cable networks, creating higher demand for the inventory on those networks, she added.

At Turner, advertisers are showing particular interest in TNT's new fictional Wall Street series, Bull, and in its original movies package, including Nuremberg, starring Christopher Plummer, Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox.

Cable's brisk upfront doesn't mean the broadcast networks are going to have a down year. Quite the contrary: some analysts predict the broadcast upfront will increase 10% to 15% with a total six-network take between $7.5 billion and $8 billion.

Others see a more modest 5% to 7% gain. NBC President Bob Wright says NBC will do 30% more business this year (see cover story), although that includes advertising for the Olympics, which air in September and are being packaged with prime time sales.

Ad buyers confirm that money shifted from broadcast to cable this year. Tim Spengler, executive vice president, national broadcast, Initiative Media, a Los Angeles-based ad buyer, noted: "Cable is more efficient and it's more targeted. It doesn't necessarily do a better or worse job."

But cable is a clear alternative in the face of ever-increasing costs on the broadcast side, said Spengler. As to the broadcast upfront, expected to break next week, Spengler predicted the amount of new money would be "closer to 5% than 10%."

Cable's price and share of budget gains come despite ratings declines for most cable networks this year-a trick the broadcast networks have pulled off for years. But Chris Rohrs, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising, said it's a sign the upfront selling process is dysfunctional.

Advertisers are getting the short end of the stick, or at least not the value they should be getting. Rohrs' pitch: make national spot advertising part of the upfront, which would give advertisers more choice and geographic targeting opportunities as well.