Cable crashes upfront party

USA joins Turner, Big Four in weeklong pitch to Madison Ave.

NEW YORK — While cablers’ upfront venues may not be as lavish as the digs from which broadcasters are wooing advertisers during TV’s traditional look-at-me week, the upstarts do have something that seemed unheard of only a decade ago: a place at the table.

And the guest list is getting bigger every year.

For the first time in its history, USA Network — the biggest moneymaking channel in the NBCUniversal empire — made a formal spiel to advertisers during broadcast upfront week, joining Turner and others who use the time period to tubthump their lineups. USA, which had previously pitched its shows at invitation-only get-togethers, decided it was time to join the crowd.

“This decision was not made lightly,” says Alexandra Shapiro, USA’s exec VP of marketing and digital. “We did our dinners (with the ad community) last year, but as important as we are, and as profitable as we are, those intimate dinners are probably not the venue to do the big business that an upfront needs to do for us. The feeling coming out of it was last year was good, but now we’re ready for primetime.”

Indeed, estimates predict that this year, cable’s block of more than 60 networks could hit the $10 billion mark in upfront ad revenue for the first time — putting it a bit ahead of the Big Four broadcasters.

Cablers made their presence known in a big way last week in Gotham, telling the ad community that when it comes to their dollars, cable is just as worthy. With every joke Jimmy Kimmel uttered at the ABC upfront in Lincoln Center, Conan O’Brien matched him quip for quip at Turner’s bash at the Hammerstein Ballroom. For every Katharine McPhee or Zooey Deschanel paraded onstage at the Peacock and Fox presentations, respectively, ESPN trotted out current and past NFL greats, as well NASCAR driver Carl Edwards.

There were even some TV creatives who were making the shift — though not always of their own accord. NBC gave the heave-ho to David E. Kelley’s “Harry’s Law,” but his “Monday Mornings” hospital drama was being touted by TNT as possibly being the Next Big Thing.

And it wasn’t just the personalities that stood out. Whether it was the raucous applause for the “Dallas” clip reel at the Turner session, or the first available footage of Greg Berlanti’s upcoming “Political Animals” miniseries at USA Network, it was clear many programs on cable could well be more attractive than broadcast fare to ad buyers.

Mel Berning, president of ad sales for A&E Networks, says some advertisers see the cable business as more stable than broadcast. While most broadcasters still order 22 episodes of a new program, the cable order is usually 13 or less — and this can be attractive to ad buyers from a risk standpoint, since a show that doesn’t perform well out of the gate could be off the air in six or less episodes. Moreover, cablers rarely cancel a show in the middle of a season, and ratings tend to be fairly consistent.

“Cable’s ratings have become more predictable — less peaks and valleys,” Berning says. “I think a lot of advertisers and buyers look to cable as the foundation on which to build their annual media plan. After all, something like 82% of the buyable ratings points in primetime are now cable ratings points.”

Steve Koonin, president of Turner entertainment, which chose to crash the broadcast upfront party beginning in 2008, says that presenting TNT and TBS shows to ad buyers during the week made sense if the network wanted to grow.

“We decided there was no reason to be in the cable ghetto,” Koonin says. “We believe we need to be here.”

While there’s no denying the time crunch to buyers of adding cable’s dog-and-pony shows to the Big Four’s — there are only so many upfronts one can attend during a four- or five-day period before heads become fuzzy with ratings and CPM statistics — the overriding lure is in being able to make the pitch en masse to a roomful of buyers.

“We made the decision in 2005 to have our upfront during the broadcast week, and it has served us well,” says Ed Erhardt, president of global customer marketing and sales at ESPN. “The upfront is about context and efficiency. It is much less about broadcast vs. cable, and much more about respecting the time of our clients. If I’m a client, planner or an advertising exec and I can get all that context all in one place, it’s a really valuable use of my time.”

While many buyers are already Gotham-based and can attend a presentation at any time, others, including the press, fly in for the week from around the country. A&E’s Berning, whose network has done its upfront presentation on the Thursday or Friday before broadcast for the past five years, wishes he could move his network’s pitch.

“I would love to move into broadcast week, because that’s where the most clients are,” Berning says. “(But) they can only afford to be away from their businesses for so long, and spending a week in New York in May is probably the max.”