UPFRONT & CENTER: AETN Tries 'Blended' Upfront Strategy

When A&E Television Networks (AETN) holds its upfront session for advertisers on April 28, the company will be pushing an advertising concept it calls “blended entertainment.” It's a term for custom ads that integrate an advertiser's product into short-form content associated with the program.

For example, car rental firm Enterprise will exclusively sponsor History's entire miniseries Battle 360 with spots featuring the company's founder, a fighter pilot in World War II.

History also produced spots with Geico for its series Journey to 10,000 BC that star the insurance company's caveman mascot, and has signed Budweiser and DirecTV as major sponsors for season two of its Ice Road Truckers.

While its ad strategy may be “blended,” AETN will push the unique attributes of its two big brands, A&E and History.

For A&E, that means authenticity, drama and intensity, which the network hopes to reflect in a new on-air look in the coming months. For History, which recently officially dropped “Channel” from its moniker, it's selling its upscale, male appeal, its trustworthiness and believability.

The upfront comes as Abbe Raven celebrates her three-year anniversary as CEO of the company with a strong story to tell. In that time, A&E, led by Bob DeBitetto, has jumped 44% in primetime viewing in the key 18-49 demo, to an average 722,000 in March 2008. History, led for the past year by Nancy Dubuc, has grown 14% in its key 25-54 demo to an average 645,000.


Both networks just finished their best quarters in their key demos and have lowered their median ages, attracting advertisers in new categories such as gaming, entertainment and fast food. The channels boast more than 100 first-time advertisers since last year's upfront. At that one, Raven promised to invest $600 million in content over this past year. She says she'll likely promise a monetary commitment this year, too.

A&E is selling advertisers on Cleaner, the Benjamin Bratt drama that marks the network's return to original scripted fare after six years. It will launch this summer, following the four-hour Ridley Scott miniseries Andromeda Strain, with limited commercials.

“What I'm really proud of is the fact that we keep cooking and keep moving,” she says. “We've been able to continue to develop our brands, invest in our programming and have an unusually high rate of success with developing original programming and I don't think I can say that about any other cable networks.”

To be sure, most networks have begun creating custom spots for advertisers at a time when DVR usage has rendered traditional 30-second ads less effective in reaching viewers. Media buyers have singled out AETN for originality, especially important as the company is not part of a larger media conglomerate, such as Viacom or NBC Universal, and as such cannot offer the sorts of wide-ranging, multi-network deals the others can.

“The assets vertically integrated companies can offer for an integration deal are vast, and the stable of properties within the A&E umbrella is smaller. But when you do business with them, what they lack in breadth of multiple assets, they make up in innovation,” says Bill Koenigsberg, president/CEO of Horizon Media.

“A&E and History have a more targeted asset base, which is facilitated very well from a marketing perspective.”

Apart from the blended entertainment message, A&E will use its upfront time to highlight its development slate, including the pilots Danny Fricke and The Beast. History will promote its ongoing deals with first-class talent like Tom Brokaw, along with new shows of its own.

Like all networks, A&E and History point to online growth. History dropped the “Channel” from its name to stress its embracing of the subject on all platforms, including the Internet. The company will also stress smaller channels Bio and HI, as well as international expansion. AETN launched more than 10 new channels this past year in central Europe, Southeast Asia and Scandinavia, and currently reaches 145 countries.

“We are truly going out in the upfront as a company that's a multimedia entertainment company across all media properties,” says Raven. “Our programming is now a portfolio that exists around the world.”

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