Cablers get a rush from fast upfront

Top-tier nets TLC, TNT, USA, ESPN, Sci Fi close deals

NEW YORK — The deal contract emails have started flying through cyberspace, and media buyers should end up funneling a record $5.2 billion or more in upfront ad dollars to adrenaline-pumped cable networks.

“I think it’s unprecedented that some major media buyers have closed deals with top-tier cable networks before the Memorial Day weekend,” said Bruce Lefkowitz, exec veep of ad sales for FX, the National Geographic Channel and other Fox-owned networks.

The top-tier nets include Turner Broadcasting’s TNT and TBS, Vivendi Universal’s USA and Sci Fi Channel, Disney’s ESPN and the Discovery Networks, led by a white-hot TLC.

Echoing Lefkowitz’s read of the marketplace, Discovery Networks ad sales prexy Joe Abruzzese said, “Advertisers are registering a lot more budgets with us earlier than ever before, at total dollar increases that go up as high as 30%.”

The benchmark for success is not total dollar increases but spikes in what advertisers are willing to pony up for specific numbers of viewers in key demographic categories, referred to as the CPM (cost-per-thousand).

By that measure, the early wheeling and dealing on Madison Avenue portends a jump in CPMs for cable overall that could soar as high as 16%.

But that’s still guesswork at this point because the cable upfront may stretch into mid-June as networks below the top tier — from HGTV and E! to Court TV and AMC — grab the attention (and the checkbooks) of media buyers.

The big buyers like OMD, Mindshare, Mediacom, Starcom, Magna Global and Carat North America should wrap up their negotiations with the big general-entertainment nets by May 30 or earlier.

Cable’s optimistic forecasts could fall short over the next couple of weeks. The double-digit increases being chalked up by the broadcast networks and the top-tier cable nets could result in a shortage of money for other cable webs later in the cycle.

One important element that has transformed general-entertainment cable nets into the darlings of Madison Avenue is “the quality and quantity of original programming that moves us closer to the broadcast networks,” said Jeff Lucas, president of advertising sales for USA Network, the Sci Fi Channel and Trio.

High-demand originals include “Monk” and “The Dead Zone” on USA, the miniseries “Taken” and “Children of Dune” on Sci Fi, TLC’s “Trading Spaces,” Lifetime’s “The Division” and “Strong Medicine” and FX’s “The Shield.”