Upfront 07

Despite Still Tiny Revenues, Cable Ready to Get Interactive

Bravo, Discovery, Scripps Create Digital Chief Posts

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Last year, plenty of folks were ready to tag the annual TV marketplace as the first digital upfront, with networks and marketers all eager to forge deals that included web components. That talk -- and it turned out to be more talk than action -- got Rob D'Asaro and his team at OMD thinking: "We really need to make sure OMD is completely prepared going into this year's upfront."
Jeff Gaspin, president, NBC Universal cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy: 'You have an opportunity to speak to consumers in a different way; you're not speaking to millions at once.'
Jeff Gaspin, president, NBC Universal cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy: 'You have an opportunity to speak to consumers in a different way; you're not speaking to millions at once.'

To that end, OMD created a new digital investment group to be headed by Mr. D'Asaro, a direct response to the increased role of online and other "off-channel" initiatives.

Much tighter integration
"Digital has definitely had its seat at the table in the last couple years, but it will be well-represented this year and part of every conversation," Mr. D'Asaro said. "There are some people that look at cross-platform as running an ad on TV and running it in the digital space. We're looking for a much tighter integration so that one medium plays off the other and one plus one equals three."

Agencies such as OMD aren't the only ones bringing more to the table at this year's upfront. The cable networks are also recasting their teams to beef up their interactive content and sales, with Bravo, Discovery and the Scripps networks among the most recent examples of cablers appointing new digital chiefs.

Yet despite all the structural changes both sides are making, digital revenue still accounts for a very small margin of total ad spending on cable. "From the cable industry's perspective, 2% to 3% of ad revenue was from digital in 2006 and 97% was from on-air," said Jon Steinlauf, senior VP-ad sales for Scripps Networks. "If you look at the big picture, it's not a huge factor today, but some groups are as high as 10% and others are as low as 1%. It really depends on how aggressive you are, how strong your traffic is and how many dedicated resources you have toward your digital properties."

Digital's favored data points
Scripps alone saw a 60% spike in ad revenue in 2006, having performed exceptionally well in the digital space thanks to contextual retail ads on the microsites for its programming on HGTV and Food Network. And with commercial ratings still a major point of contention and debate going into May, the metrics from digital are becoming among the most favored data points for the networks to play up in their events and discussions with advertisers.

"I have also seen an increasing trend for digital investment to drive TV spend," Hank Close, president-ad sales at MTV Networks told Ad Age earlier this month. "We've heard a lot about engagement and transference and we've got a connection with our audience that is not rivaled by many. Whether you do events like the VMAs or the Kids Choice, we give viewers a deepened experience on that other screen."

And marketers have begun to follow those viewers with increased interest as they venture into other platforms, committing to a more detailed ad buy. "To a degree, we're moving away from CPM conversations and into engagement discussions," Mr. Close said.

Four-screen viewing experiment
Turner is another network group that is aggressively preparing new experiments in the digital space that will eventually help it determine the power of individual platforms. After a recent successful experiment with four-screen viewing (TV, web, mobile and video-on-demand) of Turner Sports' online coverage of the PGA golf tournament, the next branded digital video experience will be brought to you by Nascar. Turner, too, is creating some new slots on its ad sales team, with President David Levy currently on the hunt for a dedicated digital sales chief to help shape future deals.

"It all rolls up to be able to think of extending a client's message across all brands," Mr. Levy said. "And then on top of that digital experience -- i.e., looking for men 18-to-34 -- if I'm looking for an Adult Swim 18-34 buy, there's no reason I wouldn't think of selling some Nascar, some TBS and maybe some Super Deluxe [Turner's broadband player]."

Ad formatting remains another issue plaguing the networks as they grapple with the best solution for surrounding their online content with the most relevant ad creative. Jeff Gaspin, president, NBC Universal cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy, has spent the year working on the different size and placement of both static and live ads to determine the most comfortable format for clients. He pointed to repurposing TV ads for online pre-roll as the next opportunity for innovation. "You have an opportunity to speak to consumers in a different way; you're not speaking to millions at once," he said.

Bravo's blogging initiative
Mr. Gaspin's NBC Universal colleague, Jason Klarman, who recently stepped into the new role of exec VP-marketing and digital at Bravo, would like to secure sponsors for all of his channel's digital properties in this year's upfront -- blogs and all. The home of "Project Runway" recently added the acquired TV-blogging site TelevisionWithoutPity.com to a stable that already includes BravoTv.com, GetTrio.com and OutZone.com.

"Consumers don't mind seeing a banner ad or pre-roll or somebody's logo up there as long as it's not interfering with their experience. The shows create such passion points for consumers, the four months they get to spend with these characters and personalities [on TV] is just not enough," Mr. Klarman said.

With so many moves to digital on the agency and network side, a third party will also remain a looming presence over all of this year's upfront deals: YouTube. Mr. Levy, for one, still views the video-sharing site's status as a consumer destination as a complement to his network's digital properties. It's up to him and his fellow networks to persuade consumers to migrate to their respective cable channels after they've had their three to five minutes of YouTubing.

"We've got to find the right model to put our content out there. It should be something we're working on but at the same time we need to know consumers are there. We don't believe in user-generated content, necessarily, but we do believe in quality content," Mr. Levy said.
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