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Local Advertising Sales Seem on the Upswing

3/24/2002 7:00 PM Eastern

As sales bogged down in a sluggish 2001, many operators and interconnects were in tune with U2's "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of."

In the current quarter, though, most seemed to have taken up the Irish rockers' call to "get yourself together." Volume — buoyed, in some cases, by the Winter Olympics — is higher, and more importantly, sales across many sectors appear to be on the rebound.

For instance, the New York Interconnect, which struggled through 2001, is close to budget for first-quarter 2002, said senior vice president and general manager Eglon Simons. His team broke new business from Dodge and Hyundai, and General Motors Corp.'s dealerships are spending more heavily than before, he said.

The telecommunications category also is strong, with buys from Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless Corp., said Simons.

And four airlines have resumed campaigns they had shelved last fall, Simons said, including British Airways plc and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. — the biggest of the interconnect's eight sponsors for Winter Olympics coverage on MSNBC and CNBC.

Charter Communications Inc. vice president of ad sales Jim Heneghan also was pleased with the first-quarter amelioration.

"The local business has been good, with a good uptick in annuals [year-long buys]," he said. And spending by auto dealers is off to a brisk start.

Conversely, he said, "national still has not stepped up."

Heneghan thought the Olympics-related tightening of first-quarter TV and cable inventory might have netted Charter some dollars, but national spot clients opted to sit out for those two weeks instead.

Nonetheless, Charter sold "quite a few Olympics packages," though Heneghan didn't know "how much was switched business and how much was new business."

AT&T Media Services was "starting to see things turn around" earlier this month, said senior vice president Judi Heady.

"We had excellent results with the Olympics in some markets," she said.

The MSO included the big event in several of its packages. Clients were also sent to Salt Lake City — where AT&T is the incumbent operator — as guests, she said.

Los Angeles interconnect Adlink's first-quarter figures got a lift from a sellout of the Salt Lake City avails, said senior vice president of marketing and communications Vicki Lins. It generated $500,000 from such sponsors as Wendy's International Inc., Southern California Ford Dealers, Southern California Toyota Dealers, the California Department of Conservation and the California Department of Tourism.

Cox Communications Inc. vice president of ad sales Billy Farina's Olympics review wasn't quite so sanguine.

Despite strong ratings, MSNBC and CNBC's coverage did not attract "consistent" local-client commitments throughout the games, Farina said.

But optimistic about Cox's ability to garner political ads, Farina was bullish on 2002's outlook. "It looks like it'll be a better year than 2001," he said.

Those political aspirations were shared by other MSO ad-sales executives. "The governor's race in California has been good for us," said AT&T's Heady.

And Insight Communications Co. vice president of ad sales Kevin Dowell saw strong first-quarter political spending activity in Illinois. He professed to be "optimistic for a good year."

Insight's sales have rebounded from a "relatively soft" January to post "double-digit gains" in February, due largely to cable's Olympics coverage." The MSO has posted gains in the "significant double-digits" in March, he said.

2001 BEST FORGOTTEN

Sales executives were reluctant to look back at a dismal prior year.

"I guess we all want to forget 2001," said Simons, who noted that it brought the NYI's "first [ad-sales] decline ever in a year unlike any other."

Overall ad volume in the New York DMA dropped by 20 percent, he estimated. The NYI "wasn't down that much," he added, though he declined to be more specific.

Despite the double whammy of Sept. 11 and the economic downturn that claimed airline, travel and entertainment business, Simons's sales force did manage to bring in 100 new clients last year. It also grabbed some ad-sales share points from its broadcast competitors.

Charter's Heneghan also tried to turn the page.

"We're doing our darndest not to look back at 2001," he said — though he did see one small bright spot.

"Advertisers questioned all their media buys and were willing to look closer at local cable," said Heneghan.

He wouldn't divulge percentages as to how the MSO finished 2001, aside from noting, "We sold the holidays pretty well and had a nice December."

Cox's Farina conceded that the MSO's final-quarter sales "finished about 9 percent behind" the prior-year period. Results were "impacted significantly by the events of Sept. 11," he said.

It could have been worse had the Christmas shopping season not proven to be "just slightly better than expected," Farina added.

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