Kids Upfront Is Moving-Slowly

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Several cable-network executives said the kids' upfront began to break last week, albeit slowly.

"It's popping," a Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. spokesman said early last week. By last Thursday, he added, Cartoon Network and sister service The WB Television Network seemed to be "significantly growing share."

Still, various cable sources continued to forecast a relatively flat kids'upfront for 2000-2001. For cable, that likely means another upfront hovering in the $450 million range.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one cable-network official described sales as "slower than expected," at least so far, but "we're cutting some deals and getting our share."

At Fox Family Channel, a spokesman said much the same: "Some deals are being done and others being negotiated, but no one's in a rush," he said.

The kid-vid upfront would not wrap by last Friday, he and others felt, in large part due to buyers'attention being diverted by the television-syndication upfront, which began in earnest last week.

Although its executives have been mum on the upfront, Nickelodeon has been scoring lucrative $20 million multiyear ad deals-with Ford Motor Co.'s Ford division two weeks ago, as well as with PepsiCo Inc.'s Pepsi-Cola earlier this year.

But Nick executives maintained that those deals were not related to the upfront, and that they are instead in line with MTV Networks president of U.S. ad sales John Popkowski's view that Nick's sales are conducted on a year-round basis.

The timing of the Ford announcement two weeks ago just happened to occur during the kids' upfront, MTVN vice president of ad sales in Detroit Steve Tegeder said.

Those deals are an outgrowth of Nickelodeon's new dedicated sales team, which has been targeting nontraditional categories since last year, when it booked Gateway Inc. as its first such client.

Other categories now being pursued by this dedicated sales force are retail, telecommunications, food and travel, Tegeder said.

Tegeder added that the Ford buy grew out of a consumer-research study that MTVN commissioned J.D. Power and Associates to do last year to gauge kids' influence on parents' auto purchases, specifically minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

Power initially sought to dissuade MTVN from "wasting its money" on such a study, but it found that MTVN's hunch was on target-two-thirds of all kids are involved in their families' car buying, and 75 percent of those influence the actual purchase decisions, Tegeder said.

Armed with that data, MTVN went to Ford, and the auto-maker's own research confirmed MTVN's findings, he added. From those discussions came Ford's signing Blue, the dog star of Nick Jr. preschooler hit series Blue's Clues, for a special three-year safety-themed campaign aimed at youngsters and their families.

Promoting safety and its Winstar minivan, Ford will buy time on Nick, as well as space in its Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. magazines and Nickelodeon Online, he said.

In addition, Blue will be incorporated into its safety commercials, signage at dealerships and safety guides. Those guides will be distributed at Ford dealerships, as well as inserted into Nickelodeon's magazines, he said.

Moreover, Ford is looking into sponsoring the touring Blue's Clues stage show, he added.

The Ford buy-the exclusivity of which applies only to the safety category-does not preclude Nickelodeon from signing other automakers, Tegeder pointed out.

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