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Network Persuaders Tout Upscale Viewership; Slam Competitors

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NEW YORK ( -- In a darkened conference room at Omnicom Group media agency PHD, four Fox News executives are setting up yet another upfront presentation, one of scores the team will make to ad-buying groups and clients around the country during this first stage of the typically monthlong process.
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Fox News' senior vice president of national ad sales, Paul Rittenberg, has had a good run so far, as Fox News' advertising revenue lifted income for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. by 45% for its fiscal third quarter, results of which were reported last week.

Fox and the rest of the cable and broadcast networks are getting ready to sell their advertising space for the new TV season, which traditionally begins in the fall.

Firing up the laptops
The Fox News guys fire up the laptop and click through scores of slides in which Fox News is represented by giant rectangular blocks and huge slices of pie chart. Fifteen or so buyers, planners and researchers, including Harry Keeshan, executive vice president for national broadcast buying, trickle into the conference room during the course of the presentation until it’s standing room only. PHD says they see 35 such presentations before the upfront begins.

The presentation bashes the competition in pursuit of non-news budgets, “A&E, they’ve gone from high brow to unibrow,” jokes Kevin Brown, Fox's vice president for East Coast sales. “CNN used to be known as the ‘crisis news network.’ We’ve broken that deadlock.” He continues to detail ratings highs on non-political stories such as the Scott Peterson verdict and the Asian tsunami, but adds that the death of Pope John Paul II was an exception.

“And why not the pope story?” Keeshan asks.

“It’s not a fast-moving story,” responds Rittenberg.

Brown is an engaging presenter of John Goodman-size proportions. He jokes his way through some of the slides, until Keeshan asks, ”Is it the way you present news that has given you this growth? The attitude?”

Attitude and graphics
Rittenberg, watching the presentation alongside the PHD staff, responds, “It’s attitude, it’s graphics. It’s the continued erosion of broadcast news and a lot is the connection the audience feels.”

On one slide, titled “Who’s Hot/Who’s Not for Upscale Delivery,” Fox News claims to be up 85% in households (adults ages 25 to 54) with income of more than $100,000 during prime time. According to the slide, CNN was up 32%, while ESPN and Comedy Central were down 5%, and Discovery and TLC were down 10% and 43%, respectively.

No one can blame a cable channel for portraying itself in the best possible light, but as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly might say, “The spin stops here.” Some PHD executives are reluctant to accept some of the arguments made, particularly since figures are from the fourth quarter 2004, which included the presidential election, a particularly good time for the channel. (PHD says its news spending is split evenly between Fox News and CNN, with a portion also allocated to MSNBC.)

It's not spin
Rittenberg disputes spinning the numbers. “We’re fortunate that most of the information shows us in a good light. No one’s saying our numbers suck,” he says, adding that first quarter 2005 also compares favorably with first quarter 2004.

Given the increasing importance of linking TV buys to more measurable media, the inevitable question comes. “What numbers does the Web site do?” asks a young guy in chinos. “Five million uniques [visitors] a month, and we’re hoping to get a portal deal,” comes the answer. Fox News is in talks with Yahoo about a possible distribution deal, but there are few other details on that.

Brown quotes Fox News founder Roger Ailes, who once said that getting to the top is difficult but staying there is more difficult. Keeshan agrees.

“CNN is retooling, MSNBC is retooling, it’s great to be No. 1 in a competitive environment, but it can turn on a dime. ... There’s plenty of support for broadcast news telecasts, there’s a lot of credibility in what they do.”

Fox News, it seems, still has some persuading to do.

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