Fox News wins Mad Ave. respect

Cabler sees record upfront, catches CNN in ad $

Fox News Channel isn’t worrying about getting around the Madison Ave. traffic cop anymore — if anything, it’s the traffic cop looking for directions to Fox.

As the No. 1 cable news operation for well over a year now, the net Roger Ailes launched in 1996 is just finishing a record upfront for the 2003-2004 season, catching up — and Fox News says passing –CNN in terms of committed ad dollars.

Eyeballs count for everything, and the stigma advertisers may have felt about buying time on the fledgling, conservative news net has all but evaporated as Fox News ratings continue to soar. In the second quarter of this year, Fox News commanded more than 50 percent of the total cable news aud, more than CNN, CNN Headline News, MSNBC and CNBC combined.

“Now that they’re attracting an audience, advertisers will take another look. Not that their content is so off. A lot of clients have come to accept it,” PHD USA exec veep Tom DeCabia told Variety. “Their content has a very conservative slant that people were not used to. But people got through and over that. Also, (Bill) O’Reilly became such a hot property. He’s the one that put them on the map.”

Fox News senior veep for ad sales Paul Rittenberg said advertisers will have pledged somewhere in the $150 million range during the upfront, which is still winding down, compared to $85 million last year.

All told, the net’s unit ad cost (ratings growth plus cost-per-thousand increases) is expected to increase by 60%-70% this year.

“There isn’t one upfront news client that didn’t buy or negotiate to buy the Fox News Channel,” he says. “Give me one, just tell me a name.”

Rittenberg estimates that CNN will finish this upfront writing somewhere between $80-$90 million in ad contracts, and that MSNBC will write about $70-$75 million this upfront.

These figures do not count scatter ad revenues, which usually exceed upfront dollars.

CNN strongly disputes that Fox News is catching up and that it remains the dominant news net on Madison Ave. Still, numbers are difficult to nail down, since CNN and CNN Headline News count their ad revenues together.

Nielsen Media Research Top media buyer Andrew Donchin, a senior veep at Carat, said he thinks there was something for all the cable news nets this year.

“I don’t look at Fox News in a vacuum. Fox News wanted to close the gap with CNN, and they did. CNN did extremely well, too. So did MSNBC. The genre that is the cable news marketplace was extremely healthy,” Donchin says. “It’s a win, win, win.”

Donchin says it takes advertisers time to warm to any new network, and says Fox News was never perceived “badly” because it was conservative.

Whether because the net was new or whether because of its programming, Rittenberg said wooing Madison Ave. was an uphill battle until the 2000 presidential election.

“We had to go sell ourselves. It was hard getting the advertisers to watch. The real breakthrough was during the election. People were riveted for a month. Our ratings stayed up after that,” Rittenberg says.

“One of our sales pitches is: I work for the only guy at that level in TV news (Ailes) who actually watches TV all day long,” Rittenberg continued.

Fox News did well with this upfront season with corporate giants including IBM and AMEX. Verizon stepped up its ante.

Rittenberg’s latest projects include trying to convince the movie studios to sponsor “The O’Reilly Factor,” which airs at 8 p.m. EDT Thursday night–just as the weekend box office gets set to go. He’s also touting the growing success and younger skewing aud tuning into the net’s ayem show “Fox & Friends.”

Rittenberg also is busy trying to woo the financial markets, considering the enormous success of Fox News’ business shows.

Rittenberg, a former ABC ad sales exec, has been with Fox News since its launch. His contract is up at the end of this year.

There has been speculation as to whether Rittenberg would leave Fox News, with some industry insiders mentioning CNN as a possible destination.

Rittenberg declined comment.

CNN recent lost its ad sales topper, Larry Goodman, who had been eager to retire. Some in the biz have suggested that Goodman’s departure portends more trouble for CNN, but it is true he had wanted to retire for many months.

Donchin reminds that there is plenty of room for both CNN and Fox News — along with MSNBC — and that a healthy does of rivalry is good, at least for Madison Ave. Suddenly, one network, in this case CNN, can’t control the rates.

“It’s a head-to-head story,” Donchin said. “It’s rare that a new network comes along and tosses everything on its head.”

(Nicole LaPorte contributed to this story.)

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