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Pulling Out the Stops

Some of the biggest, flashiest local ad sales promotions cable has ever mounted will hit the airwaves next year, as operators and networks try to capitalize on the momentum their industry has been building with audiences.

Examples of what's new include:

  • An enlarged version of Laugh Riots, a grass-roots stand-up comedy competition that next year may be connected to a new weekly series on Comedy Central;
  • Two new award shows from MTV Networks;
  • Local promotions built around TLC's Junkyard Wars
    and Trading Spaces.

Along with these emerging efforts come scores of others, including mall tours, events, sweepstakes and cause-related campaigns, plus some high-profile customized campaigns created by large MSOs working closely with networks.

It all adds up to the largest number of local ad sales promotions ever mounted by the cable industry. Driving the trend, along with increased ratings for cable programming, is a big jump in interest from cable systems. "There's a surprising demand for our promotional opportunities," says Jason Malamud, MTV Networks' vice president of affiliate advertising sales, who echoes the sentiments of many of his peers at other cable network companies.

Demand is up, Malamud says, because operators are putting more emphasis on advertising sales. "There's a re-emphasis on the core business of local ad sales," he says. "You hear a lot of talk about new stuff—advertising on VOD or inserting commercials into digital networks—but operators realize that they can't get distracted from selling this very perishable inventory. That's the trend that has been most tangible to me."

Also stoking operators' appetite for promotions is a hotly competitive market for advertising dollars. "Promotions allow us to stand out from competitors like broadcast TV, radio and newspapers," says Scott Pesner, director of marketing and promotions at Adelphia Media Services. "Cable has some of the most popular brands in the U.S., with networks like Discovery and Lifetime, and advertisers want to be associated with them."

Promotions in the works for next year fall roughly into two categories: custom and turnkey, and both kinds are proliferating.

Custom campaigns spring up most often as a result of large MSOs and networks working together to make a big splash in important markets (see sidebar, page 6A).

The customized campaign is a growing phenomenon in local ad sales promotion, thanks to consolidation in cable system ownership and MSOs' increasing desire to offer advertisers high-profile campaigns in a string of markets.

Time Warner Cable, for example, will mount between six and eight large, multi-market campaigns next year, according to Mark Mersky, vice president of corporate sales and marketing for Time Warner Cable Advertising Sales. In the past, it left promotional planning largely to individual systems. Comcast can also be expected to create more large-scale custom campaigns, now that its merger with AT&T has given it more big markets to sell. "We're going to be doing more promotions and also some larger ones," predicts Vicki Lins, vice president of marketing and communications for Comcast Advertising Sales.

MSOs' growing appetite for customized promotions hasn't stopped the growth of national turnkey promotions. These continue to proliferate as operators add more networks to their lists of insertable channels, and programmers respond with campaigns to help operators generate revenue.

New and national

Turnkey promotions range from the very large—MTV's Video Music Awards, ESPN's Football Fantasy and ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas are good examples—to smaller but highly popular events, sweepstakes and vignette campaigns.

New to the list are promotions for a pair of new award shows. VH1 Big in 2002 Awards, set for December, will highlight the year's most popular music, movies, TV and personalities and will feature live musical performances, celebrity presenters and special guests. The TV Land Awards: A Celebration of Classic TV, will air in March and will feature TV stars from the past and present honoring what VH1 calls "the legends, innovators and unsung heroes" of classic TV.

Affiliates will have access to month-long promotional campaigns preceding both of the two new specials, including sweepstakes that will send winners to attend the awards shows.

Other new promotions include campaigns connected to TLC's popular series, Trading Spaces
and Junkyard Wars.

Set for third quarter, the Trading Spaces
promotion will include a consumer sweepstakes with national and local prizes, point-of-purchase displays, taggable spots and an online tool kit allowing sponsors to build branded contest promotional areas on their websites.

The Junkyard Wars
promotion will center around a 10-city mall tour, set to run from late April through June. The tour will provide materials allowing consumers to build their own racing vehicles from junk and then race them in the mall. Cable operators will have the opportunity to secure the venues and sponsors for the events, says Mike Van Bergen, director of affiliate advertising sales at Discovery Networks.

Expanding options

Although it isn't new, Comedy Central's Laugh Riots promotion, which ran in seven markets last year and drew thousands of fans to a final event in Los Angeles, may expand this year and become the focus of a weekly series on the network. Details aren't yet hammered out, but the series could take a reality focus, following the preparations of stand-up comedians as they get ready to compete in one of the local competitions included in the promotion, according to Kurt Greves, vice president of affiliate relations for the network's central and western regions. Comedy Central also hopes to attract a national sponsor to the campaign this year. "We're hoping to tie national and local resources together into a mighty union," Greves says.

Another campaign that's expanding is Lifetime's Be Your Own Hero, which tries to boost women's self-esteem. Next year, the campaign will be associated with a new Lifetime Achievement Awards
special, celebrating people who have made a difference through their work or public service. The new awards show will likely include a hometown hero award, allowing affiliates to mount local sponsored campaigns to spur women to enter or nominate someone.

Other new promotions include one launched in August by Court TV. The traveling event allows parents to have their children photographed and fingerprinted, and then keep the record to give police or rescue personnel quick information should a child ever go missing. Affiliates set the finger printing unit up at fairs, sporting events and other community gatherings and local advertisers get to sponsor the effort.

Court TV may also create materials so local advertisers can sponsor its popular classroom program that uses forensics to spark kids' interest in science.

TNT will launch a sweepstakes promotion next year for its coverage of the PGA Championship. Winners will reap a VIP weekend and admission to the event.

Whether large and centrally planned or strictly local, promotions in the works for 2003 usually have one goal in common: to mine new and incremental business. This marks a shift from the past, when operators had to fork over a lot of promotional firepower simply to get deals done.

Boosting new business

"In the past, we had to give our promotions away; we used them to close sales," explains Bobbi Hurt, marketing director of advertising sales at Cox Communications. "Our ratings are much stronger now, so we have the opportunity to sell our avails in their own right. Today, we want to use promotions to get new or incremental business."

One way to drive new business is to design promotions that target specific categories. A number of these have sprung up this year, including a Disney Channel back-to-school season promotion targeting the families of pre-schoolers, and more are in the works for next year (see story, page 10A).

Along with pitching new and incremental business, local ad sales promotions are increasingly multi-platform. Time Warner Cable gave advertisers participating in Lifetime's Breast Cancer Awareness campaign exposure on TV, AOL and in Time Inc. magazines. To facilitate cross-platform deals, ESPN allows affiliates to sell local advertising on its ESPN Clubhouse websites, each focused on a different NFL team.

Although cable operators have talked for several years now about creating ad sales promotions that would also tout MSOs' other businesses, such as high speed access and digital TV, a growing number of campaigns are actually doing this. Comcast's Comedy Castaways promotion, set to break next year, will help drive consumers to retail kiosks where they can test drive a cable modem (see sidebar, this page), and Lins anticipates more of this kind of double-duty promotion in the future.

"Ultimately, the promotions and marketing programs we develop at Comcast will be very integrated in terms of promoting the Comcast businesses," Lins says. Another long-term goal, Lins says, is using promotions to generate ad sales while also shining a spotlight on Comcast owned networks like QVC, E! and G4. "We want to work within our own family of brands to build them and drive viewership to them," she says. "That will enable us to offer a different level of marketing support to our clients."

No matter what the advertiser's need, more local cable promotions are centered on programs, a move meant to drive viewership up while also winning new advertising revenue. "When you take an overall look at these promotions, more than anything else, they're designed to increase vieweriship, add value to advertisers' campaigns and give viewers reasons to keep coming back to the programming," says Time Warner Cable Advertising's Mersky. "If anything, we're trying to position the programming as more and more special. As the perception of its specialty increases so does the opportunity for a premium price."