Cable upfronts razzle dazzle ’em

Cablers glam it up to woo ad $ away from b'casters

Sure, NBC, having the cast of “Will & Grace” call Jeff Zucker “a tiny hairless genius” elicited some laughs. And Jimmy Kimmel confessing that, yes, ABC isn’t the top rated net — “and let’s be honest, we probably never will be” got guffaws.

But in terms of bringing down the house at upfronts, the prize went to a cabler — Viacom. In five simple words: Ladies and gentlemen, ELTON JOHN!

At the Viacom upfront earlier this month, the Rocket Man himself entertained agog ad buyers who had already seen glamourpusses like Pamela Anderson and P. Diddy strut across the stage.

Sometimes you’ve got to spend money to earn money, right? And when it comes to showmanship, the cablers proved that they are as eager to impress ad buyers as the guys on the broadcast side of the spectrum.

Even the typically staid toppers got into the act.

Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin drew howls of surprised laughter when — on tape — they removed the huge panda heads they were sporting atop their usual conservative business suits at the entrance to Viacom’s Broadway headquarters.

This rare performance of Bling-Bling and Mel-Mel, as they called themselves, at Radio City Music Hall on May 6 was for the first-time-ever combined pitch from all of Viacom’s cable networks (including MTV, Nickelodeon/Nick At Nite and VH1).

Sumner and Mel were willing — even eager — to make fun of themselves for a higher cause: to get the cash-wielding audience of ad agency execs in the right mood to eventually pony up lots more money for 30-second spots during the 2003-04 season.

Upwards of $14 billion in cable ad revenues is at stake for the coming season, with as much as $5.35 billion of that amount projected by industry guru Jack Myers to come from upfront sales — a gaudy 16% more than last year’s upfront.

“If cable networks insist on playing in the sandbox with the big boys, they’ve got to keep telling their story in these upfront extravaganzas,” says Lynne Buening , the veteran cable-programming adviser.

“Big boys” refers to the broadcast networks, which are poised to chalk up $8.75 billion in the upfront, a 6.7% gain over that of 2002-03, according to Myers.

The one common message put forward at these dog-and-pony shows by the 61 ad-supported cable nets that buy Nielsen data is: “We’re growing and we’re cheaper than the other guy,” says Howard Nass , a longtime ad buyer who runs his own media firm.

But they’d rather not be too much cheaper than the broadcast nets.

MTV, Turner and Discovery were the three most prominent cablers that took up the cudgels in their presentations. While grudgingly admitting that they can’t emulate the broadcast model of full nationwide coverage in primetime — 99% of the U.S. day and date — the cable nets insist that they do end up getting most of those viewers to tune in over a number of different time periods.

“But cable networks will never get parity with the broadcasters because their over-all ratings are too small,” says Jerry Solomon, former president of SFM Media, who runs his own media-consulting firm. “You’re talking about a 1-something rating for cable in primetime on average versus a 5 or a 6 for broadcast primetime.”

That disparity caused some of the networks to use their upfronts to stress the specific audiences that they reach.

  • Bravo, recently acquired by NBC, took over the main room of Cipriani’s on 42nd Street for a performance by Cirque du Soleil, which produces a series of specials for Bravo.

In his remarks to the ad buyers, Jeff Gaspin, Bravo’s president, swore that the network will not become a general-entertainment dumping ground for repurposed NBC programming. Instead, Gaspin showed clips from a batch of new reality shows aimed at what he called “Bravo’s upscale, educated audience.”

  • ABC Family, buffetted by an alarming exodus of viewers in the last year, previewed its upfront to a group of reporters at a Manhattan breakfast. All of its new series, movies and specials fit the category of lighthearted comedy that appeals to teens and kids without — ABC Family hopes — turning off adults.

  • Lifetime opened its upfront at an airplane-hangar-sized hotel ballroom in midtown Manhattan with a live performance by Wynonna. Lifetime has suffered audience defections in the last year, so it went on the offensive, boasting that it will spend $800 million on programming over the next two years.

Adding to “The Division” and “Strong Medicine,” its high-rated scripted primetime series, Lifetime said it would create a second night of scripted primetime originals on Saturday and continue producing at least 12 made-fors each year.

“Original scripted series are the right way to go because they’ll help cable nets close the gap with broadcasters,” says Mike Drexler, chief exec of Optimedia Intl.

Drexler says that if the broadcast nets become too aggressive in demanding exorbitant increases in the upfront, some media buyers will shift more of their ad budgets to cable.

In addition to Lifetime, USA and FX have scheduled new scripted original for summer primetime.

Scripted originals are also one way to keep viewers watching cable in the face of what Thomas calls the “cannibalization” of audiences for the mass-circulation (85 million-plus homes) general-entertainment networks by the fast-growing mid-range nets that reach anywhere from 21 million to 84 million households.

Since the cannibalization will only get worse, Redstone and Karmazin should ship their panda costumes to the dry cleaners so the outfits will be fresh for Sumner and Mel’s next upfront.

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