Truth Behind All the Spin: Cable Market Finishes Flat

For Second Year in a Row, Upfront to End Near $6.5 Billion

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What's a cosmetic negative? Its what the cable industry has come up with to help sellers and buyers put a gloss on an ugly truth.

Consider the case of cable leader, Viacom's MTV Networks. MTV has completed about half its upfront business, including the deal with OMD that it touted early on and a more recent deal with Group M. According to executives familiar with the negotiations, MTV struck flat deals or reduced cost-per-thousand rates by a fraction of a percentage point-a tactic dubbed a "cosmetic negative" since it allows those involved to spin it as "flat" or "negative," depending on which side they are on.

The overall cable market, no matter how much lipstick they put on it, will end flat as well, either just a bit north or just a bit south of last year's $6.5 billion-although buyers are rejiggering where they choose to spend those dollars.

"This is a flat marketplace," said an active cable buyer. "You chose who you are going to be punitive to and who you are going to reward."

Several cable networks are more than 50% done with their upfront deals just weeks before media agencies have to take their client presentations on the road. Buyers admit they'd like to be wrapped up by then but are also quick to point out that they've made many a client presentation but only a few straggling cable deals.

Turner Networks, another major cable force, has about 50% of its business on the books-much of it at flat pricing-but remains at a standoff with several major buying agencies that are asking the network to drop CPM rates.

While a soft marketplace tends to reward the top-tier cable networks, both USA and SciFi appear to be hurting. Neither is appearing on buyers' must-buy lists and agencies are asking for price decreases of around 5%.

FX is also struggling and some suggest T-Mobile's ill-timed decision to pull advertising from the network has hurt it. T-Mobile's CEO issued the demand after conservative watchdog group American Family Association protested some of FX's edgier programming, such as "Rescue Me."


So far the cable-news market has been slow to develop, largely as a result of the sluggish cable-entertainment market. Agencies are telling cable-news outlets they want to wrap up entertainment first, before dealing with news.

One executive said sales-side expectations for cable news were for a flat market in terms of total revenue: "It feels kind of flat, my gut tells me it might be down a little bit." However, scatter business in cable news is buoyant, in part because of higher ratings driven by coverage of the Lebanon/Israel conflict.

Separately, one cable-sales executive said CNBC is seeing sales up 20% to 30% over last year, largely due to continued ratings momentum. The network is also launching a new website,, in December (the business-news channel currently directs traffic to MSN's Money site). There has also been heavy demand to buy the first week of NBC's "Today Show" when Meredith Vieira arrives. The network announced her start date is Sept. 13.

For the record, there is precedent for this year's cable upfront.

Bill Abbott, head of sales for Hallmark Channel, went back into his files from 2001-the last year a cable upfront dragged on through the summer-and saw deals were closing as late as Aug. 15.
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