Ops Seek Ad Revenues Off the Beaten Path

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Whether relying on conventional or more novel ad-sales approaches, the cable industry's objective can best be summed up in the title of Ice Cube's recent hip-hop film, All About the Benjamins.
To help draw more advertisers their way, some affiliates have used the local crawl on The Weather Channel to good effect, while others have been scoring sales by means of ESPN's clubhouse Web sites.

TWC director of local ad sales Allyson Lago said one of the network's most successful local sales initiatives resulted from targeting the Hispanic market. Time Warner Cable in San Antonio; South Florida Cable Advertising; the Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Fla., interconnect; and Adelphia Communications Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., are just some of those using low-cost Spanish-language crawls across the bottom of the television screen to entice new clients, she said.

'BREAD STORY'

Lago recalled one tale of success that she called "the bread story" from Time Warner Cable in Orlando, Fla. In that market, the MSO convinced a grocery store that had long resisted buying cable time to try the crawl. The store advertised a free bread offer on the crawl and handed out samples in the evening to consumers returning home from work, and sold out of bread in three days. That store has become a cable advertiser, she said.

Weather's crawl has since become so popular that it is more sought after than local avails in some markets. It also has sparked internal battles between affiliates' sales and marketing departments over how to share the limited crawl space. Lago said that systems serving the New Jersey shore and other resort areas tend to sell out their crawls up to a year in advance.

Given that situation, Lago said Weather is studying ways to "enhance the crawl," by expanding it, adding pictures or using different colors.

CLUBHOUSE COMMERCE

At ESPN, vice president of affiliate ad sales and new business Jeff Siegel said ESPN affiliates are doing well with the "clubhouse" sites the sports giant has built for 77 professional teams in 32 markets.

"Affiliates are making money" with these sites by selling multimedia packages that include ESPN's various cable networks, he said. The categories supporting these packages "mirror what's buying on-air," Siegel said.

AT&T Broadband has sold Vehix.com in a couple of its markets, including the Red Sox site in Boston, he added.

Comcast Cable Communications Inc. president Charlie Thurston said his company has been working to make cable buys more attractive by packaging cable with its Comcast Car Guide Web site, recently inking a deal with the Washington Wizards clubhouse.

The method has already met with "a lot of success in Detroit and Philadelphia," he said, adding that Detroit in particular scored a renewal from a suburban Detroit Ford dealership that "virtually doubled" its prior commitment.

Turning to yet another unusual ESPN-devised strategy for boosting affiliates' revenues, Siegel said 85 systems now are garnering commissions for selling subscriptions to ESPN The Magazine
by running promos in what would otherwise be unsold local avails. "That's going well," he said, adding that these operators also support that effort via bill-stuffers and their own local Internet sites.

Asked about the ESPN strategies and selling clients on The Weather Channel crawl, AT&T Media Services senior vice president Judi Heady said, "It's too early to tell [how effective they are]. They're toe-in-the-water [efforts]."

Still, some MSOs look askance at such efforts by ESPN. When asked if his MSO is participating in the magazine-subscription notion, one sales executive said, on condition of anonymity, "If I helped ESPN in any way, I'd fear for my job!"

GETTING ALIGNED

But perhaps as a means of becoming more of an ally to recalcitrant operators, ESPN has recently begun offering affiliates branding opportunities. In the fifth inning of its Sunday night baseball games, for instance, the network has Princeton Video Imaging place participating MSOs' virtual logos on the boards behind home plate, where national advertisers' names and logos appear throughout such games.

After having tested the virtual billboards last year with Cox Communications Inc., ESPN now is rolling them out to other major MSOs that have significant footprints around the country — from AT&T Broadband and Comcast to Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, Siegel said.

In another such branding opportunity being made available to operators, ESPN and ESPN2 have been running five-to-seven-second billboards dedicated to one affiliate per month; these run throughout their program schedule.

EYEING OTHER STRATEGIES

At this juncture, addressable and video-on-demand advertising remains largely under the radar screen for most MSOs. Indeed, addressable advertising remains a far cry from the truly one-to-one marketing world depicted in Steven Spielberg's new science-fiction film Minority Report, in which ads speak directly to individual consumers.

AT&T Broadband, among the furthest along, has little to say so far about its experiments in that realm. Heady — who inherited the addressable-advertising initiative that began under predecessor Jerry Machovina, starting with a much-ballyhooed Kraft Foods commitment announced back in 1998 — has been overseeing a test of addressable advertising at its Aurora, Colo., system since last year.

But she would not comment further, declining to even confirm that longtime clients Kraft and Ford Motor Co. are among the participants.

Adlink, the Los Angeles interconnect, recently used the lure of addressable advertising to sign 1-800-FLOWERS to a Mother's Day buy that combined the interconnect's Adcopy audience-segmentation tool with Visible World's software. As a result, that campaign was able to target flower baskets at various price points to different neighborhoods within the Los Angeles DMA.

VOD ADS

Using VOD is another unconventional ad sales method that some MSOs are contemplating.

Cox, for one, has been testing that idea at its San Diego, Calif., system, although its executives too have been mum on the results thus far.

AT&T Broadband and Time Warner Cable are other MSOs at least studying VOD ad-sales' potential. "We're looking into it," said Heady, although she pointed out that "the technology still has to happen."

Time Warner Cable's Mystro TV division is specifically charged with looking into VOD ad-sales opportunities, said that MSO's president of ad sales Larry Fischer. Implementation, however, is "still down the road."

A spokesman at the MSO emphasized that such an initiative is at least "a couple of years" away.

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