Presentations over the top at cable upfronts

In a sign that the biz is bullish about the strength of the TV advertising market, over the top has become the new normal for this year’s cable upfront presentations.

Events have been set in all manner of exotic locales — from Broadway theaters to bowling alleys — and swag bags have been stuffed with big-ticket items like bottles of Veuve Clicquot.

The major cablers have engaged in upfront brinkmanship as they try to woo ad buyers who are a little more than halfway through the annual marathon of programming presentations. That long march of hors d’oeuvres and celeb hobnobbing culminates the week of May 16 with the major broadcast nets, TNT and TBS.

On Monday night, Oxygen kicked off its event at Gotham Hall with Paris Hilton entering on a lucite platform carried by four strapping gents in sailor outfits, as the star of the cabler’s upcoming reality skein blew kisses to the crowd of media buyers and journos. In another extravagant stunt, Syfy secured a houseful of comps for buyers to take in Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” — one of Gotham’s hottest tickets. The March 22 event impressed ad buyers anxious to check out the show.

But so far, the event that takes the cake for extravagance is Bravo’s March 30 upfront that incorporated the “Top Chef” finale and simultaneous presentations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The Gotham portion included a sit-down dinner for 300 at Gotham’s 82 Mercer, an exposed-brick loft space the net had lavishly decorated. Hosted by Bravo topper Frances Berwick, programming head Andy Cohen and NBCU Entertainment and Digital Networks chair Lauren Zalaznick, guests sampled a tasting menu of four dueling courses prepared by “Top Chef” contestants, who, after being briefly introduced to the buyers, retreated to finish shooting the live finale of the show. Live cut-ins from all three events during the finale gave viewers a glimpse behind the velvet upfront rope, to the delight of the media buyers who made it onscreen.

The goal of all this extravagance, says media analyst Harold Vogel of Vogel Capital, is to make the network’s programming as memorable as possible.

“Whatever it costs, we’re talking about small change when the network is going in and trying to boost (ad) sales by $100 million,” Vogel said.

Moreover, Vogel said, it’s a fun scene, and ad buyers like comparing party stories and encounters with talent. “I’m not even a buyer, and I’m pissed that I’m not invited,” he joked.

Some networks prefer an earthy approach. On March 29, FX treated buyers to a night of bowling and billiards (and heaps of comfort food) at Manhattan’s Lucky Strike Lanes. Buyers arrived to find their names affixed to bowling shoes as a slew of thesps from FX shows hoisted balls and pool cues.

Event planner Andrew Saffir, who creates and staffs movie premiere parties in the city, said that upfront soirees can cost as much as $200 a head, not including entertainment. Last year’s Nickelodeon upfront included a perf by Justin Bieber; Maroon 5 will be playing for the TruTV crowd on Tuesday.

Increasingly, nets are relying on inhouse talent for the upfront presentations, but even an event staffed entirely by the network can still be pricey. Guest lists above a certain number simply have to be accommodated at an empty venue, and that’s when the expense gets serious.

“When you’re in a raw space, you’re bringing in every plate and fork and napkin,” Saffir said. “Raw spaces, while they’re terrific, also don’t have the established staff of a restaurant, and they tend to need some finessing in the way of decor — lighting, flowers and candles.”

Saffir said he’s had success bringing parties to up-and-coming restaurants anxious for press and a scenic crowd.

ABC Family was a hit last month with about 600 guests at Lower East Side eatery Beauty & Essex. Ad sales head Laura Nathanson shepherded ABC Family stars and buyers around the packed-out venue, obligingly repurposing cardboard table decorations for autographs while attendees munched on lobster tacos and exotic sliders.

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