Ad-Sales Downturn Hits the Spot Market

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The sluggishness that has hit the broadcast and cable network marketplace this fall seems to be spreading to the national spot-cable arena as well.

At leading spot-cable ad-sales rep firm National Cable Communications, the third quarter was up a weak 11 percent, but October bounced back in a big way, said executive vice president and director of sales Andrew Ward.

August and September were tough, and third-quarter growth was due mainly to a strong July, Ward said. Automotive-sector cutbacks, shrinkage in the dot-com arena and the Olympics-which scared many advertisers out of the market-were reasons for the slump, he explained.

"October was the largest-billing month in the history of spot cable," Ward said. That should lift fourth-quarter results to a 15-percent growth rate compared to a year ago, he said.

For the full year, NCC's spot business should jump 25 percent, Ward projected.

"Advertisers are getting back into the marketplace, though not to the degree initially anticipated," Ward said

But some clients are holding back until after the election-the photo finish between Al Gore and George W. Bush last week didn't help-and until earnings results are released.

NCC should get a clearer idea of how Christmas-season sales will go this week and next, Ward said.

Next year looks "iffy" for spot cable at this point, both Ward and vice president of affiliate relations Steve Houck predicted. The market is lagging well behind the rapid 40-percent-and-up growth rate to which the cable industry has become accustomed in recent years, both said.

In a word, both executives described the spot market as "challenging."

Next year, spot-cable sales should grow 15 percent to 20 percent, Ward estimated, slowed by the absence of

Summer Olympics and political ad spending, fewer dot-com clients and concerns about automobile sales. NCC amassed $25 million from political sales this year.

The market outlook is subject to change. Even among programmers, the prognosis is not uniformly bleak.

Executives at Viacom Inc., Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. and Lifetime Television said their fourth-quarter sales look strong, amid indications that early 2001 business will also pace well.

Last month, executives at various MSOs and interconnects had different takes on the final quarter of 2000, though few would venture guesses for next year. Those at Comcast Corp., Cable One Inc., Time Warner CityCable of New York and Adlink, the Los Angeles interconnect, were bullish that the current quarter would rebound from a lackluster third quarter.

"But not without effort," said Adlink vice president of marketing and communications Vicki Lins.

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