TV Upfront

Upfront Focus Shifts to Cable, Where Networks Anticipate Gains

Some 'Catch Up' With Broadcast Rates Warranted, Analyst Says

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TV's annual upfront negotiations have now shifted fully to cable, where networks and analysts are expecting to see more growth than the broadcast networks found, even if dealmaking is proceeding at a more measured pace.

"Cable is moving along, but not flying," said one media buyer. "All of the networks are still in play."

The growing Investigation Discovery is at the heart of Discovery Communications' talks.
The growing Investigation Discovery is at the heart of Discovery Communications' talks.

Cable's total upfront commitments could reach $10 billion this year, an 8.1% increase from last year, according to a research note this week from Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce. Ad buyers should have more confidence in their buys because cable's niche programming better isolates specific audiences, Mr. Joyce wrote. Cable pricing also typically remains lower than broadcast, so some "catch up" is warranted, he said.

The five English-speaking broadcast networks won commitments this month totaling $8.8 billion to $9.3 billion, roughly unchanged from the upfront market a year before.

Viacom, which began writing deals early in this year's upfront as part of an effort to steal share, hasn't quite finished yet, according to a person familiar with the pace of negotiations.

The parent of MTV , VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and BET has been securing CPM increases -- hikes in the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers, a common measure in the annual talks -- from 3% to 6%, depending on the volume being commited. With rocky ratings as the backdrop to negotiations, it seems Viacom has been willing to sacrifice some pricing in order to drive additional volume.

Other top-tier cable players like Turner Broadcasting and NBC Universal are seeking CPM increases between 7% and 9%, on par with the increases received by CBS and Fox.

Turner, which owns TBS and TNT, has shown a little more flexibility and "friendliness," according to another media buyer. Turner has about 80% of its business written, while NBC Universal, whose portfolio of cable networks include USA, Bravo and Syfy, is more than halfway done and nearing the home stretch, according to people familiar with the pace of negotiations.

Discovery Communications is also being aggressive, asking for high single-digit percentage increases in ad rates, but buyers are saying it hasn't been quite as "boisterous" as Turner and NBC Universal.

Investigation Discovery, a rising star whose ratings have at times overtaken Discovery Channel in recent weeks, is at the heart of negotiations, according to a buyer. The company wants to secure better pricing at the network, which has been priced cheaply in the past, the buyer said.

AMC Networks and A&E Networks are seeking CPM increases between 6% and 7%.

For A&E's History, negotiations are coming at an opportune time, following the blockbuster success of its miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys." The massive ratings for the miniseries has drummed up interest in its other upcoming docu-dramas, "Mankind: The Story of All of Us" and "The Bible," as well as its first original scripted series, "Vikings," according to a person familiar with the matter.

General Motors continues to be the hot topic, as the automobile giant remains at a standstill with most networks. GM and its agency Carat went into negotiations asking for major price rollbacks, which was not well received by the market. GM has subsequently softened its demands to some degree, but networks are still reluctant, according to a buyer.

The broader automotive category is mixed, according to buyers, with Chrysler strong but Ford's Lincoln brand apparently absent from the hunt. Retail and technology, specifically Apple and Microsoft, are also strong, but movie studios and gaming have been weaker.

Network executives and media buyers declined to discuss the negotiations for the record.

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