TV Upfront

Forget Data: AMC Focuses on Its Shows in Pitches to Advertisers

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan on AMC's 'The Walking Dead,' TV's highest-rated scripted series.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan on AMC's 'The Walking Dead,' TV's highest-rated scripted series. Credit: Gene Page/AMC

It shouldn't be news that a TV network will be touting its shows during the upfronts. But as sales executives' pitches have turned toward data-driven audience buying, new ad products and non-traditional commercial formats, AMC Networks' plan to focus on its programming in advertiser meetings this week stands apart.

"The content is more important than ever and that's what I think an upfront should be about -- what stories are you going to be telling us, what are the results of my investment, what do my clients see for next year that they want to be part of?" said Scott Collins, president-advertising sales, AMC Networks.

TV sellers are also eager to take advantage of a marketer uprising over ads on questionable YouTube videos. The content message has become especially relevant as marketers are "pulling their messages from elsewhere and putting them where they can rely on the content," said Charlie Collier, president-AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios.

Mr. Collins said he has been fielding questions from media buyers and marketers who are "really concerned" about what's happening in the digital space. "They are responding," he said, rather than just complaining but staying put.

"It's a great moment to be representing these brands because that is at the forefront for us," Mr. Collins said. "It is content that really matters and that viewers really care about and you know what you are getting. What you run in matters."

Data can only help so much if the content is sub-par, Mr. Collins suggested. "It's the good stuff that's going to drive the benefits of data," he said.

AMC Networks is not the only TV group deciding that there's an opportunity to spend more time focusing on content. A&E Networks increased the focus on storytelling during its upfront pitch to advertisers last month, skipping the long speeches about data and new products in favor of its executives telling stories about their relationships with TV.

AMC will once again enter the upfronts with the highest-rated scripted series on TV in "The Walking Dead" and three of the five top-rated non-sports shows on ad-supported cable. But it isn't immune to the ratings erosion plaguing the TV landscape, one of the reasons that networks are playing up data using other metrics.

"The Walking Dead" is averaging a 5.4 rating among adults 18 to 49 in Nielsen's live-plus-same-day measure, excluding the season finale that ran Sunday, down 17% from a year earlier. "Better Call Saul," the prequel to "Breaking Bad," ended its second season down 44% in the 18-to-49 demo, while the second season of "Fear the Walking Dead" saw more than half of its 18-to-49 rating disappear.

AMC Networks will be stressing the breadth of its content beyond "The Walking Dead" and even the flagship channel. This will be the first time AMC Networks will combine its channels, which also include IFC, Sundance, WeTV and its joint-venture with BBC America, during its upfront presentation.

On AMC, new shows include "The Son," a Western starring Pierce Brosnan, which will air on Saturdays beginning April 8; the anthology series "The Terror"; and "Lodge 49," which AMC calls a "modern fable set in Long Beach." IFC will premiere the new Hank Azaria comedy "Brockmire" this week. Nicole Kidman has joined the cast of "Top of the Lake: China Girl" on Sundance.

AMC and Fox Networks Group's FX combined represent about 50% of the 18-to-49 drama impressions in basic cable, said Ed Carroll, chief operating officer, AMC Networks.

"There is a tremendous drama, original programming story amidst all the noise of what you have been talking about and we are proud to lead with it," Mr. Collier said.

The prevailing notion has been that there's a glut of high-quality, scripted programming on TV, but Mr. Carroll said it may be peak TV for the consumer but not for the advertiser. "Most of the growth in high-quality, scripted storytelling is happening in streaming or the pay-TV universe, meaning it is off-peak TV for advertisers because the amount of impressions in basic cable are finite and limited," he said.

While AMC has been experimenting with its own data product, commercial pod length and native content, ultimately it is arguing that good content will drive people to watch.

"The nature of our business is what's new and innovative, branded entertainment, etc., gets the headline and is important to do. I would also say the 30 and 60-second spot are still the most effective way to make brands famous and sell products," Mr. Carroll said.

All the same, AMC has been developing an ad product that allows marketers to optimize their TV buys not just across AMC Networks' suite of channels, but across the entire TV marketplace. Marketers can look back at previous campaigns -- spot by spot, network by network -- to see how they might have been more efficient and to identify potentially better places to find their target audiences, Mr. Collins said. They can then take those learnings and apply it to future ad buys.

This is not a buying tool, but is meant for planning, and is based in Nielsen data because "we still live in a Nielsen world for the foreseeable future," Mr. Collins said.

AMC worked with one financial advertiser last year to test the product and plans to roll it out to about eight other advertiser categories this year.

Despite rumors that surfaced last week that AMC is prepping an ad-free, direct-to-consumer subscription product, there will be no announcement to this end during the upfronts. Mr. Collier said these reports are based on speculation and declined to comment on whether such a product is in the works.

"We are very fan focused; we have nothing to announced but we have all sorts of conversations on how we can super-serve those fans and where we can do that we will," Mr. Collier said.

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