Cable TV 2008

Should Cable Nets Leverage Writers Strike in Upfront?

Channels That Stayed Fresh With Nonfiction Fare Will Look for an 'Edge,' but Those With Scripted Programs Will Play It Down

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Some cable networks are planning to make hay from the lack of new broadcast fare caused by the recent writers strike.
Cleaning Up: Discovery relies only on nonfiction programs such as 'Dirty Jobs.'
Cleaning Up: Discovery relies only on nonfiction programs such as 'Dirty Jobs.'

Though most cable networks are cautious about exploiting the viewer and advertiser disappointment stirred up by the three-month strike, a few will point out how they weathered the storm with fresh programming, a message they hope to convey to media buyers who've grown tired of reruns and reality fare in the past few months. Cable networks that focus on nonfiction programs and original movies will emphasize that their schedules remained intact while writers walked the picket lines.

Shouldn't overplay tactic
But cable networks will be careful about this tactic because the longer-term impact of the writers strike is not yet known, especially since many consumers turned to the non-TV alternative of the internet. Also, broadcasters return with slates of new shows this month, and TV-starved consumers could very well be clamoring for their "CSI" fix.

What's more, some cable networks don't want to leverage the strike during their upfront conversations because they're focusing on original scripted content that also caused them headaches during the walkout. Cable networks whose flagship shows relied on striking writers, such as Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," suffered too. TNT and Lifetime also pushed back premieres of shows.

But others were unfazed. While some TV viewers defected to the web, spending more time with video sites such as YouTube and web series such as "Ask a Ninja" and "Internet Superstar," some turned to TLC, Discovery Channel or Hallmark Channel.

"They are going to look for any edge they can, and I won't be surprised if using the strike is one of the stances they take," says Ed Gentner, senior VP-group client director for video investment and activation at MediaVest, New York.

Discovery's nonfiction bent
Discovery Communications relies solely on nonfiction programming, such as "Dirty Jobs" on Discovery and "Little People, Big World" on TLC, and plans to highlight specific programming during the upfront, says Joe Abruzzese, president-ad sales. "That's a change, and I think the strike accelerated what we already know. Buyers [pay] a higher [cost per thousand] for broadcast," he says, "but our original content is just as good as broadcast, and our ratings are going up, not down."

Mr. Abruzzese says he expects cable to benefit from the strike for the rest of this season, in the 2008-09 season as anticipated in the upfront and in the longer term.

"We've been strong in scatter and our ratings are going up, and then long term I can't see this not continuing," he says. "There are still cost-efficiency pressures on clients to get an efficient buy."

The Hallmark Channel also plans to seize the opportunity. "The evolution really began in the mid-'80s with cable coming into the scene, and we have all seen the broadcast erosion," says Bill Abbott, exec VP-ad sales at Crown Media Holdings, parent of the Hallmark Channel.

Mr. Abbott is angling for CPM increases in double digits based on the network's ratings, its slate of consistently programmed original movies and the fact that the network's schedule remained unharmed by the strike. Hallmark delivered its highest-rated year in 2007, with a 1.2 household rating, and also set a record for the fourth quarter, with a 1.3 household rating from Nielsen.

The Hallmark Channel has plenty of fresh material to work with. It has 30 original movies planned for 2008, including "Shark Swarm," involving mutant sharks, a fisherman, a marine biologist and an unscrupulous developer.
Angling for More: 'Shark Swarm' will be one of 30 Hallmark Channel original movies.
Angling for More: 'Shark Swarm' will be one of 30 Hallmark Channel original movies.

But even with strong ratings, Discovery's Mr. Abruzzese acknowledges that cable can't compete when it comes to generating the kinds of big numbers a movie studio needs, for instance, when advertising a new release.

'Can't duplicate the impact'
That's why cablers need to be realistic about the upfront, media buyers say. While cable accounts for more than half of prime-time viewership and is both more cost-efficient and more targeted, there are times when broadcast is the only bullet that will do, says Miraj Parikh, director of Spark Communications, Chicago, a division of Starcom MediaVest Group.

"Most clients have made the shift to have the majority of their buy leveraged in cable and then supplement with broadcast, but you can't duplicate the impact of broadcast," he says.

Still, cable networks believe they're well-positioned, strike or not.

"Cable networks were in a strong position before the strike," says Susanne Daniels, president-entertainment at Lifetime Networks, which pushed back the debut of the second season of its hit show "Army Wives" from March to June when it had to stop production during the strike. Lifetime also put development of two sitcom pilots on hold and had to wait until the strike ended to begin preproduction on those. Among new offerings Lifetime will highlight in the upfront will be "Coco Chanel," a movie in which Shirley MacLaine portrays the famous French fashion designer.

Ms. Daniels says she is reluctant to play up the strike during the upfront. However, she does plan to highlight cable's value and its economic model. She's been talking to TV producers who are eager to borrow lessons from cable's development approach: fewer pilots, less-expensive production.

Adding to broadcast's erosion
Broadcast ratings were eroding before the strike, says David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting Sales and Turner Sports. The distinctions will erode further as cable networks continue to produce original series such as "Saving Grace" and "The Closer" on TNT, whose premieres were pushed back due to the strike. "I am not changing my approach at all in how I am tackling this upfront," he says.

Nor is Bob DeBitetto, exec VP-general manager at A&E, because his network, too, is leaning on more originals. A&E managed to finish production of its miniseries "The Andromeda Strain" before the strike started and went into production on its new series "Cleaner" because the script was shoot-ready in November. "We were able to have quite a bit of fresh scripted content ready to go," he says.

That's why the strike card is not one he wants to play. "I don't think we need to talk about the strike," he says. "It's more about making sure they know what's on and to engage in early discussion about what the opportunities might be to partner in terms of integration, sponsorship."

Besides, most cable nets don't want to draw attention to differences when consumers don't and when cablers are running original scripted fare too, Mr. Gentner says, adding: "Everyone would love to see cable come up with more original programming so they can be a valid alternative to broadcast TV."

Mr. Gentner says the programming options on cable do look more promising than a year ago and he expects cable programmers to be aggressive out of the gate.

The priorities for advertisers are more sophisticated than feeling burned by a lack of broadcast shows during the strike. Mr. Gentner says he'll evaluate buying decisions based on how well the programming fits his marketers' brands and the flexibility cable networks offer with branded content and integration into digital platforms.