Cable networks, syndicators trade punches in fight for upfront dollars

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One sure sign that upfront dollars might be scarce this year is the escalating war of words between cable networks and syndicators. At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars that could swing either way as media buyers and their clients decide where the best deals are.

Syndicators, which booked $2.8 billion in last year's upfront market, have already rolled out their new shows to advertisers. Among them are the as-yet unnamed Martha Stewart show distributed by NBC Universal; "Tyra" from Warner Bros and "Judge Alex" from 20th Television. Tabloid news show "A Current Affair" from 20th Television has already been on Fox stations for the past month and appears to be faring well.

The syndicators, who were forced to wait until last during the 2004/2005 upfront, are ready and waiting this year. But they're irked that cable executives-who booked $6.3 billion in the upfront last year-are already trying to take them out.


Things started to get ugly back in March when the Syndicated Network Television Association made presentations to media buyers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles claiming that ad-supported cable network ratings were down 0.4% between October 2004 and January 2005, while syndicated programming was up 5.2% over the same period. The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau vociferously disputed those figures, claiming instead that in total day, cable was up 7%.

Then, during the cable-upfront presentations, David Levy, president, Turner Sports & Entertainment, a Time Warner company, challenged syndicators, saying that they couldn't provide the kind of value-adds such as broadband, video on demand and product integrations that cable can (although many a marketer executes tie-ins with talk and game shows). Mr. Levy is one of a number of cable executives who think syndication money will move in their direction this year.

"That's a strategy by some cable networks, that is their intention. Their belief is there's some potential vulnerability," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming, Katz TV, a company that buys syndicated shows for local station groups. He, however, does not agree. "I don't know if cable can unilaterally change buying plans. There are always going to be little shifts, but one of the mistakes they've made is to put syndicators on notice. If they'd been more subtle then maybe they might have been more successful."

The SNTA has not been slow to react. Mitch Burg, association president, raised the intensity of the debate this week by attacking cable on the clutter issue and repetition of ad spots. "The average rating in cable is a 0.1, you're wearing people out as you're educating them."

Mr. Burg claims the association has delivered its message to some 800 people and met with some 23 clients or agency planning groups and is hammering home the syndication message. The majority of participants who saw the SNTA presentations have signaled intent to spend either the same or more in the syndication business.

Another syndication executive hinted that the market might not be as strong even for the likes of the broadcast networks. "We haven't seen [Viacom Co-President] Les Moonves say CBS is going to be plus 10," said this executive. "Buyers are looking to see where they'll get their best value. ... It's a fragmented marketplace. Twenty-five percent of cable has hash marks-is that where I want my money?" Cable networks gain hash marks when they don't reach enough viewers to warrant a Nielsen rating; that's usually less than 50,000 viewers.

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