|Photo: Steve Fenn|
Ed Erhardt, president-customer marketing and sales at ESPN, says his network and corporate sibling ABC have been using the same databases to invite similar people to their upfronts.
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On what's being billed as a "Disney day," the sports network will be the only cabler actively participating in the big buying week, on May 15, the same day as broadcast sibling ABC's presentation. It's a risky move for any network lacking the household carriage and broad appeal of the broadcast giants, but such is the assertiveness of cable TV as its programming continues to narrow the ratings gap with its broadcast rivals.
Men and sports
Walt Disney Co. ad honchos Ed Erhardt at ESPN and Mike Shaw at ABC are banking on the power of men and sports to be a perfect complement to the upfront buying frenzy.
"We've been making sure both parts of the story [ESPN and ABC] make sense and using the same databases to invite similar people and also allow new people to see it as a real opportunity for them," says Mr. Erhardt, president-customer marketing and sales at ESPN. "Historically, a cable network has not done a presentation the same week the broadcast nets do, but ESPN plays with all networks. ... This allows us to play in all budgets beyond just sports budgets."
Not that ESPN has any trouble tapping into those lucrative budgets already. In last year's upfront, the network wrote more than $1.8 billion in ad business. ESPN also scored the highest ratings for any cable series when "Monday Night Football" registered a 9.9.
"MNF" is one compelling story about ESPN content. Another is its "Big Monday" triple-header college basketball matchups. ESPN2 will be trying to build a similar, soccer-centric franchise with its new "MLS Primetime Thursday" offering.
Other cablers step up
While ESPN is the premier destination across the TV spectrum for sports buffs, other cable networks are bringing big names in other genres. FX will be spotlighting "Damages," starring Glenn Close. The new court drama with Ms. Close follows the network's success this season with "The Riches," a dramedy starring Minnie Driver. "Damages" is slated to debut in July.
Such marquee names have become almost de rigueur for cable. A&E Networks' History Channel, for example, has scheduled 94 half-hour documentaries from "Star Wars" creator George Lucas.
A&E Networks looked at prime time in a big way when A&E became the first network to bring "The Sopranos" off HBO in January, a feat that paid off when it became the highest-rated off-network series with a 4.27 million-viewer debut. The network group was able to recoup its record $2.5 million-an-episode price tag and invest a total of $600 million in new programming for A&E and History. Up next on the A&E slate is a big-budget adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Andromeda Strain" from executive producer Ridley Scott.
Lifetime's new shows
Lifetime, a network long known for its original programming with successful movies, has made its largest commitment to new shows for next season. This summer, it will become the first cable network to launch a three-hour programming lineup composed entirely of its own scripted content, with "Army Wives," starring Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell; "Side Order of Life," with Marisa Coughlan; and "State of Mind," featuring Lili Taylor. The bevy of new dramas comes with a revamped LifetimeTV.com, which will be updated with expanded broadband and social networking content in June.
Despite the cable networks' advances in programming, "we're not necessarily looking to shift network prime-time dollars into cable originals," says Chris Allen, VP-national broadcast at GSD&M, Chicago. "A lot of those newer dramas we tend to purchase in scatter, but if we know something's going to be on the schedule, it's definitely significant when they have a hit with original programming."
Turner Entertainment networks this season had the highest-rated ad-supported cable series in TNT's "The Closer," which finished 2006 with an average of 6.6 million viewers. That stacks up against the similarly themed "Crossing Jordan" on NBC, which attracted 7.9 million this season, and the 12 million that regularly tune in to CBS's "Cold Case."
"The conversations we're having [with clients are] to look at the cost and value proposition, which shakes things up from what might happen on the bigger, more traditional networks," says Linda Yaccarino, exec VP-ad sales and marketing at Turner Entertainment.
Bravo targets niche
Smaller cable networks also have a shot at success in this environment as brands targeting niche audiences. Bravo, the NBC Universal network that caters to upscale adults in the 18-to-34 demo, proved this when its third season of "Project Runway" pulled in an average 3 million viewers on a weekly basis. Bravo this summer will add a Thursday lineup of original shows, including "Hey, Paula," a reality show centering on "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul.
Getting that demand to follow online will be the next challenge for cable networks as nearly all of them take broadband players to market for the first time.
"The scale is growing, but we're probably not there yet for the digital offerings to be considered on their own in an upfront kind of way," says Jordan Bitterman, senior VP-media at Digitas.
The looming arrival of the NBC Universal/News Corp. online video partnership, which the Fox and NBCU cable nets can start selling this year, will bring a whole new game to the online world. But don't expect any radical shifts in media budgets just yet.
"CBS, ABC, ESPN all need to not just be TV brands anymore," says Tim Hanlon, senior VP-ventures at Publicis' Denuo Group. "They are multimedia brands."