Cablers complete upfront sales quickly

NBC Universal, Viacom network groups are done

If the 2010-11 cable upfront were a World Cup match, buyers and sellers would now be at about the 80-minute mark, with little threat of stoppage time added to defray any on-field histrionics.

At week's end, at least two top-tier cable network groups -- NBC Universal and Viacom -- had completed their upfront business at high single-digit pricing premiums. Also charging ahead were Turner Broadcasting, which by late Friday was estimated to have moved as much as 90% of its allotment, and Discovery Communications, which had sewn up about 80% of its business.

"The market is reflective of what's going on in the business world, and people are feeling a lot more comfortable about their companies' prospects," said Gary Carr, senior vp, executive director, national broadcast at New York-based media agency TargetCast tcm.cq "A year ago, everybody thought the world was coming to an end."

Turner and Discovery could put a bow on their remaining deals as early as Monday. Meanwhile, A&E Networks, Comcast Networks and Fox Cable Networks were said to be done with more than half of their business.

NBC Uni last week hammered out deals for its cable portfolio at average CPM hikes of 9% over last year's bazaar, landing commitments for about 50% of its available inventory at USA Network, Syfy, Bravo and Oxygen. Total volume was up 20%.

Sources said USA was able to command primetime pricing hikes of 9%, although in some instances, the top-rated cable net lifted CPMs by as much as 10% from last year's rates. NBC Uni made a concerted effort to land higher rates for USA, which has been widely perceived as "underpriced" given its suite of high-profile crowd pleasers like "Burn Notice" and "Royal Pains" and promising new entries like "Covert Affairs" and "Facing Kate."

Youth magnet Viacom locked in pricing and volume increases commensurate with the broadcast market, notching mid-teen dollar gains at MTV Networks and BET Networks.

Ratings challenges at VH1 and Spike TV were offset by improvement at the flagship net and Nickelodeon's unshakable dominance of total day.

Despite some early pushback from buyers, Turner seems to have held the line on pricing for TBS' late-night Conan O'Brien showcase. While Turner's unit pricing hasn't overtaken NBC's "Tonight Show" or CBS' "Late Show," "they're getting pretty damn close," one buyer said.

In primetime, TBS and TNT are said to have written deals at 9% above 2009-10 rates. On the whole, the bulk of the cable market could be sewn up by the end of this week, with total commitments tallying between $7.79 billion and $7.92 billion. That would make for a lift of 18%-20%.

Maureen Bosetti, senior vp, group director national TV investments at Optimedia, said business was driven by categories "chasing the same time periods and shows." Auto was particularly active as manufacturers looked to snap up avails in fourth-quarter 2010 to secure a large national audience during the crucial pre-holiday period. Retail also has flooded the zone.

As play winds down, sellers suggested that this year's competition will be remembered for its fast pace -- the last time an upfront wrapped in mid-June was 2004 -- and the dearth of overt gamesmanship. Which isn't to say that there haven't been a few operatic thrashings.

"Scatter has been moving into the upfront at an unprecedented rate," one ad sales boss said. "Because of that influx, some buyers are suggesting we'd better rake in as much as we can now, because there won't be a dollar left for scatter afterward."

If clients do hold back in Q3, the networks would obviously look to tighten the screws on cancellation options, although that's for another day. "We're getting our pricing and our volume," the ad sales chief said. "No sense trying to push that agenda while we're getting everything else we need."

Anthony Crupi is senior editor at Mediaweek; Steve McClellan is editor of Adweek.
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