TV Upfront

Cable News Touts Trump Traffic Bump Ahead of Upfronts

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Wolf Blitzer discusses Russia on 'The Situation Room.'
Wolf Blitzer discusses Russia on 'The Situation Room.' Credit: CNN

Cable news is entering the TV upfronts in the strongest position in its history thanks to a certain president-related traffic windfall. The three big cable news networks say the Trump bump has attracted more advertisers that don't typically buy news -- and even advertisers who want to speak directly to President Donald Trump himself.

The positive story around cable news has created an entry for those advertisers who in the past didn't necessarily care either way if their messages were running in news, said Catherine Warburton, chief investment officer, Assembly.

Ms. Warburton added that in the past if there was an advertiser whose target demo was 25-54 and its media plan didn't include news, they likely wouldn't care either way. "Now if you are doing a 25-54 buy and it doesn't include news client will likely ask why," she said.

But even in The Donald's administration, cable news faces some challenges.

"It is so partisan. And often negative surrounding what is happening -- that tempers some of the enthusiasm around the high ratings," said David Campanelli, exec VP – managing partner video investment, Horizon Media.

To be sure, the ratings bump "gives news more consideration than it might have in the past," Mr. Campanelli said. But news is still predominantly watched by older viewers and there are only so many advertisers who want to reach this demographic.

"For news, bottom line, it's old," added Campanelli, referring to the age of the audience who is watching. Outside of regular news advertisers like finance and pharmaceuticals, "the majority of advertisers do not have news very high on their list."

But it sure is hard to ignore those ratings. A surge in viewership was expected around the election, but typically post-election viewership takes a significant hit. That hasn't happened.

Fox News enters the upfronts as not only the most-watched cable news channel, but also the most-watched cable network during the first three months of the year, topping ESPN. The network saw a 20% increase in total viewers in primetime during the first quarter, averaging 2.9 million viewers. It's worth noting that the first quarter last year included several primaries and debated. And the network broke a cable news record in total day, with an average of 1.7 million, making it the highest-rated quarter ever in cable news history.

Still, it has plenty of drama to contend with, not least of which is the recent mass exodus of advertisers from its most popular show, "The O'Reilly Factor" following a New York Times report that host Bill O'Reilly and the company paid out $13 million to settle five sexual harassment cases.

For the most part, those advertisers who have pulled out of O'Reilly have just shifted dollars into other Fox News programs. Historically, situations like these elsewhere in TV have not soddened the entire network, and several media buyers expect it won't impact Fox News' overall ad business. But that will also depend on how Fox News responds in the coming days and weeks.

CNN also had its most-watched first quarter in 14 years, averaging 1.2 million viewers in prime time and 826,000 in total day. And MSNBC saw a 55% surge in its total day audience, averaging 781,000, and a 40% increase in the 25-54 demo. In prime time, MSNBC averaged 1.5 million viewers.

News consumers as defined by Nielsen spent nearly an hour and a half more each week watching cable news in 2016 than they did the year prior, according to Nielsen's new fourth-quarter 2016 Total Audience Report. These viewers spent 27.1 billion minutes on average watching cable news each week last year, up from 18.8 billion minutes in 2015.

This entire cable news bonanza comes as the rest of the TV landscape continues on its downward trajectory. Overall, cable TV ratings are on track to end the season down about 6% in total viewers, while broadcast is down about 8%.

Ad sales leaders at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all say that demand for commercial inventory is strong and they are attracting not only an increase in dollars from returning clients but bringing in non-endemic advertisers who don't typically advertise in news programming.

"Coming off the election year, general interest advertisers like entertainment, movie studios and tech are not going away and are coming in heavier," said Katrina Cukaj, exec VP-portfolio sales and client partnerships, Turner Ad Sales.

At Fox News, "the volume of audience has led to some more fruitful conversations with new advertisers," said Dom Rossi, VP-eastern sales, Fox News.

Advertisers didn't anticipate how strong the cable news space would be post-upfronts, and as a result, there was more scatter inventory available in the first two months of the year, according to Standard Media Index. And scatter pricing keeps growing, with unit prices up 17.6% when compared to the first two months of 2016 and 26.7% when compared to the 2016 upfront rate.

According to iSpot, an ad-tracking firm, mobile games and wine, alcohol and e-cigarette categories didn't run spots on the cable news networks in 2014 but bought in last year. There was also an uptick in housing and home improvement ads and beer ads.

One place, in particular, that has seen a boost thanks to President Trump is culturally relevant brand messaging, social messaging and issue-based advertisers, Ms. Cukaj said.

"We have advertisers who want to directly address the administration," she said. To this end, CNN has seen an uptick in demand for its early-morning programming, which President Trump is known to watch. "Early morning is more aggressive than ever before," Ms. Cukaj said.

According to iSpot, all three of the networks had more social-based advertisers running spots on their channels in 2016 compared with 2014 before the election cycle really took hold.

Fox News' Mr. Rossi said he hasn't necessarily seen an onslaught of advertisers looking to speak directly to President Trump. He noted that the network's morning show "Fox & Friends" is traditionally one of the more well-sold shows on the channel.

There has also been some changes in the level of focus advertisers are now paying on things like pod position and finding the most impactful moment in news programming, said Mark Miller, who heads ad sales for NBC Universal New Group, which includes MSNBC. It's a level of focus that is more common to entertainment or sports, rather than news, he said.

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