Cables Awesome Upfront

I had my first whiff that something was going to be very, very different, and great, about this year's cable's upfront back in early May, at the National Show in New Orleans.

It was a quiet time, and nothing was happening yet. In retrospect, cable's ensuing victory even shocks me now, and I am pretty shockproof.

I was having a great lunch at Mr. B's in the Quarter with an executive from Discovery, who mentioned in passing that all of the ad-sales guys were back at home, working until 5 a.m., poised to wheel and deal and ready for the upfront to erupt. "No kidding," I said, filing that tidbit away.

The spring upfront is the time when national advertisers lock in rates for about 80 percent of the broadcast and cable ad inventory that is available for the next year. In other words, it's a lot of money.

But back to Mr. B's: My ears perked up and I hustled back to the pressroom to get our team on the case. I was greeted with total skepticism from my reporters, who said, "Oh, hell, cable says that every year, and it never happens."

They were not at all impressed with my tip, and greeted my announcement in about the same way as we all answer those calls from telemarketers who are trying to sell us cheaper phone service.

But as it turned out, I was right, and so were the people who are responsible for selling the advertising for cable's many networks. They were poised, in place and ready to pounce.

They made the right decision because the following week, something that never occurred in the history of media buying happened: Cable moved ahead of the broadcast upfront-buying season.

That was a first and a very significant milestone in cable's history.

As recently as a few years ago, I remember Madison Avenue agency folks still maintaining, and trying to spin me, that there was no such thing as a "cable upfront." That, of course, was their way of negotiating in the press.

What they were still saying as recently as a few years ago was that national advertisers did their big buys on broadcast, and whatever dollars were left over went to cable because it was such a pain in the neck to buy.

Right. And what a bunch of bunk. Oh, how that scene has changed. This year, when the final dollars are off the table and there are still some scraps out there for cable and broadcast to fight over, cable will rake in $5 billion from national advertisers that want to secure their bets, according to Cable-television Advertising Bureau president Joe Ostrow.

That's a very significant number, because the broadcast upfront market has raked in $8 billion or so to date.

What this really means-and it's very important-is that the gap between cable and broadcast on the national ad-buying front is finally narrowing. Finally.

That is no shocker to cable-network ad salespeople, who have long toiled these fields and are finally reaping the benefits of many hard years' worth of work in positioning their networks against broadcasters. They have a very compelling story, and it's finally getting across.

Cable, I think, has grown up quickly, and may become the new standard for agency media buyers. It's now front-burner on Madison Avenue. The folks at Turner, and other content providers, have packaged their avails so that advertisers can get bulk buys or pick and choose from a wide array of demographics.

The broadcasters can't do that. If they're lucky, like ABC, they have a hot commodity, like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-a streak of lightning that can ignite sales for other dayparts. But we all know from history that a show this hot can turn cold in a New York minute.

And here's a little personal history. I'll never forget the first upfront story I wrote, many moons ago. I was covering Madison Avenue, and my editor sent me to St. Louis to get a story from Ralston Purina.

I learned more about the upfront than any person should need to know. That company was traditionally the first to plunk down its dollars in the upfront, and it more or less set the tone for what would follow in other companies' subsequent deals. And happily, that national advertiser gave me all of the inside skinny about how the upfront works and opened up its books.

Back then, like now, media buyers had many options to hedge their bets on and spend their dollars, ranging from billboards, radio, spot TV, national broadcast and cable-and yes, even shopping-cart handles, no kidding.

What was apparent way back then was their total disdain for cable. It was too hard, too new and way too messy.

Well, things don't happen overnight, but I have to take my hat off here and salute the programmers, who have done one hell of a job in getting across their selling propositions. It was not always like that. They have done one heck of a job. Kudos!