Cable Operators

Upfront and Center Time

3/13/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

As spring approaches, each week is peppered with another upfront ad-sales presentation from a cable network, trying to pitch its strengths and desirable demos to the ranks of 20-something media buyers.

One of the first players out of the box was also a collective newcomer to the upfront party scene: Comcast Corp.’s stable of networks, including E! Entertainment Television, Style, G4, The Golf Channel, Outdoor Life Network and others, all pitching together.

The evening affair was held in mid-February at Cipriani, a happening place in Manhattan. For the first time, Comcast trotted out all of its top executives to tell each network’s unique selling proposition. The cast of big brass included Ralph and Brian Roberts, Steve Burke, Jeff Shell (who doesn’t even start until May 2), Amy Banse, all network chieftains and Dave Cassaro, who was named president of Comcast Network Ad Sales six months ago.

Later, I caught up with Cassaro, whose office on West 42nd St. is just two buildings away from where Comcast Spotlight, the MSO’s national spot sales outfit, is located. Cassaro’s operation will make the move into the landmark Grace building later this summer.

And that’s pretty good timing, considering that no one knows when negotiations between sellers and buyers will begin in the upfront market. Last year, breaking tradition, cable moved before broadcast and the whole selling season was over and done with by June.

In past years, protracted upfront ad-sales markets had ruined the vacations of many buyers and sellers, as well as the reporters who cover that beat.

But the fact that cable moved first last year is no indication of what’s likely to occur this year, said Cassaro. Timing could depend on how Turner Broadcasting System Inc. plays the game.

Last year, Turner moved mountains, cutting the first deals. And that could happen again, given that Turner will host its upfront party the week of April 11.

Regardless of the timing, Cassaro is confident that cable will see a double-digit increase in CPMs. More surprisingly, I was amazed when Cassaro added that this would not be the year that cable networks would achieve CPM parity with the Big Four.

That’s partly because the broadcast-network economic model is again in disarray, as ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC scramble to rebuild their lineups as ratings decline for many of the cheap-to-produce reality shows. But Cassaro is certain that his own bevvy of beauties will perform well, given that his networks skew either young, affluent or toward both demographics.

Catch highlights of our This Week in Cable interview online at multichannel.com, to hear his views on the upcoming upfront market for yourself.

We covered a lot of ground, from the intricacies of pulling off cross-platform deals to the role advertising will eventually play in the video-on-demand world, where Comcast is a big player. Bottom line: lots of new twists for this selling season.

September