Slump Dampens CAB Local Turnout

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Despite the sunshine logo gracing the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau's brochures for its Local Cable Sales Management Conference later this week and the anticipated cloudless skies in Orlando, Fla., attendees are expected to encounter some stormy weather.

As conference-goers descend on the May 17-19 conclave, the industry is being rained on by a sluggish economy lingering over national, spot and local ad-sales activity.

But other clouds that have long loomed over cable operators' horizon — local ratings shortcomings and backroom woes — could begin dissipating this year, given some promising movement on those fronts.

Nielsen Media Research has just begun its local People Meter test in Boston (with AT&T Broadband signed late last month as its first subscriber), and rep firm National Cable Communications continues to roll out electronic data interchange capabilities that make cable buying more advertiser-friendly nationwide.

Still, slumping sales and tepid economic conditions will have a negative impact on the CAB Local conference attendance.

"My guess is we're going to be down at least 25 percent, to somewhere between 600 and 700," CAB's vice president of local sales and marketing Kevin Barry said last week. "It's directly attributable to a Biblically bad year."

Conference co-chair and MTV Networks vice president of affiliate ad sales Jason Malamud agreed. "Our friends in the local-sales world have been experiencing perhaps unprecedented difficulties — and unfortunately some of their companies are not investing in the future," he said.

Last year's CAB Local attendance was 900, off from 1,000 in 1999 — a drop the CAB blamed on MSO consolidation. The bureau, celebrating its 20th anniversary, had hoped that holding this year's event at Walt Disney World's new, family-friendly Coronado Springs resort would lift attendance.

The buzz around the industry this time had MSO, interconnect and cable-network constituencies each sending fewer people and, in some instances, having other officials stay for just one day.

AT&T Broadband is one of the MSOs making significant cuts, reducing its presence from 90 attendees in 2000 to just five this year, Barry said, even though AT&T Media Services senior vice president Judi Heady will serve as the confab's co-chair.

The co-chairs offered some pre-show advice on coping with the downbeat sales climate. Heady suggested that one way to boost revenues in a lackluster climate is to "focus [sales efforts] on market segments, like furniture dealers, hospitals and banks, and try to educate our industry" on how best to work with those clients.

Malamud talked up network/affiliate promotion linkups' role in driving increased sales into operators' coffers. He described promo tie-ins as "more important now than ever to maintain rate integrity and add value to packages."

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