Siren song

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It's springtime and New York has been humming with live performances by high profile acts like the Goo Goo Dolls, Joni Mitchell, Sting, the Backstreet Boys, Elton John, Diana Ross, Tom Jones and others. Typical New York, maybe, but these artists were all shilling in one way or another during upfront parties and related events for cable channels.

"Good morning," chirps Melissa Etheridge to a banquet room full of advertisers, media buyers, marketers and brand managers who had been tapping their feet and swaying since 9 a.m. to an acoustic set by the gravely voiced singer songwriter.

"I've never really sung to a crowd this early in the morning," adds Ms. Etheridge, who was doing her bit for the Lifetime Television upfront. "Thank God for Krispy Kreme doughnuts."

This year's cable upfront is making it perfectly clear that even our most hallowed musical artists are not above plugging for cable brands. One almost expected to see Bob Dylan warbling "Blowing In the Wind" for the Weather Channel. Most of the big cable channels are featuring some sort of musical act to draw in the clients.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," says Tom Cavallaro, VP-ad sales at VH1, who claims that MTV and VH1 were the first to use music acts in their upfronts.

SAY `GOO GOO'

"There's more and more music programming out there, and so now [the other channels] are using it to attract people." VH1 serenaded its upfront attendees with a performance by the Goo Goo Dolls.

"I have a little problem saying goo-goo," admits Mr. Cavallaro. "It doesn't quite come out right."

VH1 upfront attendees received perks, including special invites to "Divas 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross," which featured Mariah Carey, Faith Hill and Donna Summer; and its companion act, "Men Strike Back," which starred Sting, the Backstreet Boys, D'Angelo, Enrique Iglesias and Tom Jones. Both shows were being taped, perhaps not coincidentally, around the time of the channel's official upfront.

But "it does offer us three events, very close together, showing the power of VH1 to advertisers and agency folks who were all our guests at these concerts. It was an excellent opportunity to show off."

TNT also got to show off this year. Its star-studded upfront at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom was hosted by Alec Baldwin, Tom Selleck and Farrah Fawcett. They introduced the new TNT shows "Nuremberg," "Running Mates" and "Baby." The bonus for attendees was the following "All-Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell."

The tribute was being taped in the very same theater, so the upfront attendees simply lingered in their seats and were rewarded by a parade of crooning luminaries, including Elton John, k.d. lang, Cyndi Lauper and Wynona Judd.

SUITS AND CELEBS

Camera cranes swooped over the mixed audience of suits and celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and Rosie O'Donnell, and closed in on Ms. Mitchell, who was seen with eyes occasionally shut, as if either in deep rapture or cat-napping.

"We've had these tributes to the masters for a few years now," says Joe Uva, president of Turner Entertainment group sales and marketing. "They work as a programming vehicle; they work as a marketing platform, and they also serve a great purpose in engaging people with our product, live."

Did Ms. Mitchell and friends know they were presented on a marketing platform before an audience of media buyers?

"We didn't hire Joni Mitchell [for the upfront]," says Mr. Uva. "We put on a tribute to her that makes for great TV. And if it gives us an opportunity to tie two events together that's great."

Dan Rank, managing partner at Omnicom Group's Optimum Media Direction, New York, says that he enjoyed himself. "I'm a huge Joni fan. It gets guys like me to go to the presentation. It's a great sales incentive, no different from your local car dealer giving away free hot dogs and sodas, and all the seniors come out. We are so jaded in our business. It takes a Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang to get us out."

FIRST BIG BASH

The Discovery Channel threw its very first upfront extravaganza this year in the cavernous Cipriani restaurant, a former bank on 42nd Street across from Grand Central Station. The event, called "The Discovery Experience," featured mobs of coat-checkers and waiters all wearing black; a robotic elephant; graffiti artists, "extreme human performers," including contortionists and flame-eaters; members of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus performing trapeze acts; a giant globe that dropped from the ceiling; and an army of professional masseuses dispensing free neck rubs. Downtown DJ Matthew Glass spun some master mixes at a turntable, and a 12-piece band called Eturnity, featuring members of James Brown's old funk lineup, played.

"Through the use of audio, lighting and video, our guests will feel they are entering DiscoveryLand," read an internal creative treatment for the event.

Bob Igiel, president of broadcast at Media Edge, New York, made an appearance at the Discovery hoedown. Once a senior VP at A&E, Mr. Igiel claimed to have pioneered the use of musical acts for upfront events. "Now musical acts are part of a staple for several networks. That's one way to draw people in," he says. "[However,] any network worth its salt not only makes these big parties as a statement, but also has a follow-up meeting with all the key people. So it's not as if [a party] is their only shot."

There is, however, one danger to all these splashy upfront events, warns Mr. Igiel. "It's when you have 30 upfronts to go to, nobody is going to go to all 30. So it all depends on who has the best show."

Unfortunately, the acoustics inside the vast old bank refused to cooperate, and the music bounced off every wall. Even the upfront speakers battled the echo, without success.

"It's a bit loud," Caroline Brown, online media planner at Hampel/Stefanides, New York, said as she left. "The acoustics sucked. You couldn't hear the [scheduled] speakers very well."

Still, as a consolation, Discovery gave a great door prize to every guest: an expensive waterproof parka.

Ms. Brown, however, says a party would not be a reason to do business with a network.

"A party would not make me want to buy," she says. "What it comes down to is the numbers and will this station work with my target audience? A party is more an appreciation thing. It's saying, `Thanks to those of you who have bought advertising with us.' "

OFF FOR A MASSAGE

Ms. Brown, meanwhile, heads to another booth: The massage line in the Discovery Health zone. "A soothing, white spa-like space where guests can relax on white couches and ottomans," reads the treatment for the event.

Unfortunately, there is a long line of people, pushing and shoving to get into the room, with drinks in their hands. "Forget it," says Ms. Brown, with a wave of her hand. She leaves to go have a smoke. That's the relaxation she needs.

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