First, the math: Most estimates peg last year's combined take from the two broadcast netlets at about $1.2 billion.
This year, buyers suggest the new youth-targeted CW network might be able to draw about $800 million-meaning other networks that boast young and ethnic-skewing audiences find themselves with the most to gain.
MTV, FX, BET, A&E, TBS, VH1, E! and Comedy Central, along with some smaller cable networks such as TV One, all fall into that category.
"The younger skewing cable networks are licking their lips," says Jason Kanefsky VP-account director at MPG, New York. "They see opportunity to take money off the table."
Overall, TBS and sibling network TNT are again making buzz for being the most aggressive cablers in terms of non-reality original programming investments.
Early favorites in TBS' comedy lineup include "My Boys," starring Jordana Spiro as a tomboy sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and the half-hour "My Embarrassing Life," a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old boy and his quirky family.
Perhaps prompted by the success of last year's series "Into the West," TNT is planning another epic historical miniseries, "The Company" about U.S. intelligence during the Cold War and produced by famed movie and TV commercial director Ridley Scott.
TNT has two new dramatic series in production: eight summer episodes of "Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King," starring big-name acting talents like William H. Macy, and "Saved," a stylistic drama starring Tom Everett Scott as a young paramedic.
Another theme expected to resonate in the 2006 cable upfront will be a continued trend of advertisers buying across fewer networks but investing more dollars in those that do make their list.
The trick to standing out, buyers say, is offering something more than simply rating points. so networks are busy rolling out integrated offerings that combine on-air, online, mobile and promotional elements.
Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television Group, says almost all his operation's upfront deals will have a new media-mobile or broadband-component.
MTV Networks is going to the upfront emphasizing its cross-platform deals. The Video Music Awards has been a magnet for integrated activity. "The young demo is easier to reach in sponsorable places than ever before, but the difficulty is aggregating them," says Hank Close, exec VP-MTV Networks music and comedy. He says MTV Networks' off-air elements are mature enough to drive dollars to the linear screens in the upfront.
Even nonlinear networks are looking to get into the mix. Comcast Corp. held its first-ever video-on-demand upfront presentation this year, spouting out statistics that show it, too, is a great place to find young viewers.
VOD = YOUTH APPEAL
The presentation touted VOD as a trove for advertisers trying to reach young consumers. Adults 18-34 are the biggest consumers of VOD, according to Comcast. While that demo accounts for 20% of linear-that is, scheduled or programmed-viewing, it accounts for 34% of VOD viewing. In fact, the under-34-year-old crowd accounts for 66% of VOD viewing.
Of course, because cable lacks leverage, in a flat market it's at the mercy of the broadcasters and how friendly they price their programs. Last year, cable had high expectations of gaining significant volume from broadcast as it had in 2004. But those hopes were dashed as ABC went into the market early and low, and struck deals with cost-per-thousand increases of 4%-6%. After wrapping negotiations with ABC, buyers scrambled to finish up talks with the other networks before going on to cable.
If broadcasters go out with aggressive pricing, it could open the door for cable networks to get some early deals done. But if media buyers find market leader ABC's pricing to be friendly, then cable networks may be relegated to a game of "me too." Whether or not that means less money in the market remains to be seen.
"We do zero-based planning," says Elizabeth Herbst-Brady, senior VP-director of broadcast investment at Starcom USA, Chicago. "I'm not sure it's as simple as there's a strong show on network and therefore it's not good news for cable."