First-quarter scatter ad sales were strong for cable networks last week, continuing the momentum started by a robust fourth-quarter scatter, various sources said.
The pace has been so brisk that several weeks ago some cable executives expected virtual sell outs by Thanksgiving Day.
But some executives had reservations about the optimistic prediction. One executive on the agency buying side said that, due to robust upfront sales, inventory remained tight at the broadcast networks — but he doubted that sell-out timetable was attainable.
MediaCom Worldwide executive vice president of national and local broadcast Donna Speciale last Thursday called first-quarter cable scatter sales "healthy," but labeled the Thanksgiving sell out prediction as "a little over-exaggeration."
With the broadcasters so heavily sold in the upfront, many accounts are buying cable and TV syndication, she said. But "there are way too many avails in the cable arena for that [sell out by Thanksgiving] to be the case."
Initiative Media North America executive vice president and director of national broadcast Tim Spengler added, "Cable is strong, reflective of the whole advertising economy, but I'm not concerned about getting dollars down."
Not surprisingly, network sellers had a more bullish take on the industry's position.
Hallmark Channel executive vice president of ad sales Bill Abbott said that his September projection of a strong first-quarter scatter market has proven accurate.
"Typically we're halfway done at this point" in opening-quarter scatter sales, but Hallmark is now well beyond that.
Discovery Networks still has "a ways to go" in opening-quarter scatter, said Discovery Networks U.S. president of ad sales Joe Abruzzese. But a lot of business has been registered, and the networks could be sold by Thanksgiving.
According to ESPN/ABC Sports president of customer marketing and sales Ed Erhardt, the auto, fast food, retail and movie segments are fueling a very strong scatter marketplace. "Because sports ratings are up significantly pretty much across the board," he added, "clients are migrating dollars to sports" from other dayparts.
While noting that her group will not be sold out by Thanksgiving, Rainbow Advertising Sales Corp. president of national network sales Arlene Manos said, "We're pacing very nicely ahead of projections in dollars registered and CPMs [costs per thousands]." She said solid categories ranged from auto and packaged goods to movies and video games.
Lifetime executive vice president of ad sales Lynn Picard said at her network categories fueling the scatter boom were "across the board," although the auto sector was somewhat unclear, with manufacturers still assessing the effectiveness of their zero-financing campaigns.
Conversely, The Weather Channel senior vice president of national sales Jim Agius counts automotive among the network's biggest first-quarter buyers. Overall, Weather is "seeing a strong first quarter, with CPMs well above where they finished in the upfront."
"Automotive continues to be very, very strong" in initial-quarter scatter, Abbott said, along with "retail, pharmaceuticals, packaged-goods — the usual suspects." Just about the only categories that remain cool, he added, are "the techs and financials."
Besides a robust broadcast upfront, Abbott attributed the scatter boom to "overall ad spending being definitely up."
Picard added, "Not many [first-quarter upfront] options have been taken."
The view from the buyer side differed somewhat. Agency executives acknowledged the market is tight — but not that
MediaVest president of U.S. broadcast Mel Berning said, "It's pretty strong out there and [inventory] is tightening up. Time is still available, he said, albeit at "pretty high rate increases."
Speciale concurred that scatter pricing is high — with rate increases in the 5 percent to 7 percent range the norm. But "we're not seeing anything outrageous — unless [a client] needs a specific program on a specific day and time."
For their part, Abbott and Picard said that scatter is continuing to notch double-digit price increases.
The strength of rate hikes varies network to network, according to Spengler.