Kids' Upfront Makes a Late Arrival

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The long-delayed upfront ad-sales market for childrens' programming finally saw some movement late last week, amid signs that kidvid selling might converge with the general upfront marketplace to some degree.

"Some substantial deals were done last night at Cartoon Network," Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. spokesman Mark Harrad said last Thursday. He declined to divulge further details at clients' behest.

Still, some three weeks of negotiations with buyers have yielded relatively little in terms of overall sales for Cartoon.

"But a lot are kind of on the precipice," Harrad said.

Business at kids' kingpin Nickelodeon seemed to be a little further along. The network has already written "more than half our 2001-2002 upfront business" for Nick, Nick Jr. and Nick Jr. on CBS, spokesman Dan Martinsen said last Thursday. But Nick's sales philosophy holds that "the upfront for us is a year-round proposition," he reiterated.

Nick is also still making inroads in terms of breaking into unconventional kids' categories, as well as in drawing clients interested in reaching mothers via its preschool block and in selling to Hispanics through its Latino-oriented shows.

Bargaining is now underway with key buyers for both the Fox Family Channel cable network and the Fox Kids broadcast block, noted Fox Family Worldwide executive vice president of ad sales Barbara Bekkedahl, but there are "no deals yet."

Observers have forecast a flat kids' upfront that would match the $750 million or so tallied during last year's selling period. But others have anticipated that a tepid toy business and glut of inventory on both cable and broadcast outlets could prompt a decline of 20 percent or more.

On the general-market side, TBSI has finalized a few integrated or cross-platform deals. But those transactions are "on a different track, outside the upfront," according to Harrad.

TBSI confirmed prior reports that some buyers expect the broadcast and cable-network upfronts to drag on through the summer and into Labor Day weekend. The sluggish advertising environment and a possible Screen Actors Guild strike have led to that uncertainty.

Clients that opted to exercise their third-quarter options on last year's commitments didn't affect TBSI too strongly, said Harrad. Turner's sales brass interpret that as "a good sign," he added.

A number of advertisers canceled their orders prior to the May 1 deadline, while others sought to hedge their bets by extending their options. Some network executives maintain that a significant cancellation of third-quarter commitments could damage this spring's 2001-2002 upfront.

As for speculation that the long-delayed kids' upfront may now be negotiated hand-in-hand with the general bazaar, Harrad said, "We don't think it matters."

Given consolidation on both the buying and selling sides — as well as the rising number of cross-media deals —TBSI believes "it may make sense to combine kids' and adult deals for many clients," he said.

Fox Family's Bekkedahl concurred. "We anticipate that some of our kids' business will be negotiated in tandem with our adult business," she said. (In the kids' market, broadcast and cable have long moved simultaneously.)

With "more variables on the table," it should become easier for buyers and sellers to "find what creates the win-win for both parties," she said.

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