Comcast, Toon 'Up’ First

New York— And they’re off.

The big payoff doesn’t figure to come for a couple of months, but Comcast Network Sales and Cartoon Network kicked off the annual ritual of networks making “upfront” presentations to ad buyers, putting their best fare and demo information forward at gatherings here last week.

Their goal: Start to lay the mindset groundwork that will ultimately cut bigger pieces of the advertising pie when the annual Madison Avenue bazaar — in which agencies secure positions for their clients within the networks’ upcoming schedules — opens for business in April, May and June.

Last year, while the broadcast networks were collectively flat with an estimated $9.1 billion take, cable grew close to 20% to over $6 billion during the upfront. On the kids’ side, last year’s take was around the $900 million range, a 12% jump from the previous year.

On Feb. 15 at the midtown restaurant Cipriani, Comcast Network Sales conducted its first unified presentation, for E! Entertainment Television, Style, The Golf Channel, Outdoor Life Network, G4 and the soon-to-be-renamed and revamped Asia Street on I Channel.

For its part, Cartoon, which is coming off a record year in terms of the delivery of kids aged 2 to 11 and 6 to 11, expects to drive more sales — not only from catering to those core audiences, but by entering the preschool arena and more aggressively pursuing young adults in late night via its “Adult Swim” block, which will become a separate network from a ratings perspective next month.

For Comcast’s part, chief operating officer Steve Burke said that ad sales represent about 10% of the MSO’s total of $20 million in annual revenue, with $1.4 billion garnered on the “cable side” by the Comcast Spotlight unit, and another $400 million-$500 million generated by the “cable-content side.’

“We’re extremely committed to growing the content side, and that will represent a far bigger percentage over the next five to 10 years,” he said.

Burke also touched on the changing face of the medium and that Comcast wants to work with advertisers interested in running long-form ads within video on demand content, to engage branding partners within streaming video and eventually to insert ads in DVRs.

Comcast Network Advertising Sales president Dave Cassaro said the company is looking for ways to monetize VOD content, which the MSO offers up free to digital-cable subs.

“There has been a lot of back and forth about running :30s in short-form VOD content,” he said. “But maybe billboards, 10-second IDs, or title sponsorship of a group of vignettes from The Golf Channel makes sense, say, for Nike or Titleist.”

Since much of the content that airs on Comcast’s national services is produced by the networks, Cassaro said, it facilitates branded entertainment extensions.

“We’re concentrating on things that fit organically into the shows,” he said, citing examples in which talent on OLN’s hunting and fishing shows wears LL Bean equipment. “It’s not like someone saying, 'Now, I’m opening up my LL Bean backpack.’ This is what you would be wearing if you were in the woods in Maine.”

In the meantime, the world of traditional commercials isn’t going away. While acknowledging that one size does not necessarily fit every client’s needs, Cassaro said, “We’ve had a couple of conversations with groups interested in all our networks.”

Network chiefs of the Comcast-owned services extolled their passionate viewers, new shows and attendant demographic appeal.

Ted Harbert, president of E! Networks, alluded to the fact that he had replaced Mindy Herman, who left the company abruptly last after some issues arose about her allegedly abusing her position.

“As you may have heard, I didn’t get this job due to what we would politely call 'natural causes,’ ” Harbert said. “Steve Burke correctly analyzed that the very popular E! brand has been taken for granted, and needed a kick in the pants, which is exactly what we plan to do.”

He said E! is spending millions more on programming, and has nine new series this year. The goal is to make E! the ESPN of entertainment, according to Harbert.

Steve Smith, managing director of the International Channel, talked about repositioning the service to target the nation’s 13.5 million Asian-Americans with English-language programming.

As a transition, the service is now operating under the name Asia Street. But the network will be rebranded before the National Show in April, according to Smith. The monikers being considered include AZN — Internet shorthand for “Asian” — and A-Pop, as well as Asia Street, according to a source.

Cartoon, meanwhile, will move into the preschool realm on Aug. 22. Aimed at 2-to-5-year-olds, the “Tickle U” block will air weekdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. with programming that will not only be educational, but fun, something that Alice Cahn, vice president of development and programming, said has been lacking from much other preschool-targeted fare.

Hosted by a fun-loving adult named Marty, Tickle U will come out of the box with, among other series: Firehouse Tales, in which young trucks learn the ropes of becoming a hero; Gerald McBoing, based on the Dr. Seuss character who can only speak in sound effects; and Garden Gnome, described as what would happen if Martha Stewart was joined by Bob the Builder.

Kim McQuilken, executive vice president of Cartoon sales and marketing, said the block’s four commercials minutes per hour is one-half of the network’s overall load.

“We’ve worked with educators and really invested a lot of time to build a schedule that we feel will appeal to young kids,” he said. “We’re only going to take the right messages, age-appropriate commercials here.”

McQuilken said the overall kids’ upfront will be shaped by nutritional issues that will see some food marketers scaling back or out of the kids market, as well as traditional toy companies adjusting their product lines to remain relevant.

But with those and other dynamics come opportunity. McQuilken expects the upfront to be “a growth market and we’ll be very disappointed if we don’t outpace” it. Improved ratings aside, he said Cartoon will prove attractive to clients interested in licensing, online, sponsorship and promotional packages.

Cartoon is also placing an increasing focus on Adult Swim. Taking a cue from what Nickelodeon did with Nick at Nite in the second quarter of 2004, Cartoon is spinning off its late-night block into its own network for Nielsen Media Research purposes, beginning March 28.

The separation of Adult Swim, running 11 p.m.-6 a.m. each day except Friday, should dramatically lift Cartoon’s Nielsen positioning. According to Turner Broadcasting System Inc. research, based on its total-day performance through January, Adult Swim would rank first among viewers 18-34, 12-34 and 12-24 and males 12-34 and 12-24. Similarly, Nick at Nite has become a weekly fixture in primetime’s top five among viewers 2+ since it became distanced from Nickelodeon.

Battling for the $1 billion that’s at stake in the late-night arena, Cartoon executives proclaim that Adult Swim routinely beats late-night stalwarts The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and LateShow With David Letterman among young viewers. As such, the network’s been picking up more car and computer business.

David Levy, president of Turner Entertainment Ad Sales, said breaking Adult Swim into a separate network, for Nielsen purposes, will serve as “proof to buyers that have supported the daypart that they have receive the biggest bang from their clients’ bucks.” He anticipates high double-digit growth in revenues for the daypart.

In 2004, sources estimated Adult Swim garnered upward of $75 million for Cartoon.