Merger players fare well in an otherwise dismal kids upfront

After the sluggish kids upfront finally wrapped early last month, media buyers estimate that spending was down 5% to 10% from last year's ad commitment total of between US$700 million and US$750 million. With advertisers throwing in fewer dollars to chase rating points, this year's marketplace tally is pegged at about US$650 million.
September 1, 2001

After the sluggish kids upfront finally wrapped early last month, media buyers estimate that spending was down 5% to 10% from last year’s ad commitment total of between US$700 million and US$750 million. With advertisers throwing in fewer dollars to chase rating points, this year’s marketplace tally is pegged at about US$650 million.

As expected, the soft ad market led to lower CPMs, with the broadcast side faring a little better than cable. While supply on cable was up, demand was nowhere close to matching it, which brought CPMs down 3% to 5% from last year. But on the broadcast side this year, a continually shrinking supply due to the migration of kid viewers to cable, coupled with low ratings, generated enough demand to translate into low single-digit broadcast increases. ‘Kids’ WB! did very well,’ says John Wagner, assistant media director and lead kids negotiator at Starcom Worldwide. ‘It was looking to take less money because its ratings were down and it had dropped its weekday morning blocks. So it could be choosy about its business and was able to drive an increase here and there.’

Larry Blasius, senior VP and director of national broadcast at TN Media, says the kids upfront has changed to reflect the reality of the current marketplace. Upfronts of yore sometimes wrapped in the span of the week following Toy Fair. Advertisers today wait longer to firm up their budgets, and Blasius believes there’s no need to scramble. ‘Gone are the days when people did kids television buying in February,’ he says. ‘From a demand standpoint, there are no characteristics of the kids marketplace that warrant the upfront being that fast-paced and taking place so early.’

But dragging out the process doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone. ‘Those advertisers that waited, especially those that were relying on broadcast, didn’t fare as well as they could have,’ says Starcom’s Wagner. ‘Key windows for promotional efforts went very quickly, and waiting typically reduced the likelihood of an advertiser getting the ideal times.’

According to media buyers, the merger between Kids WB! and rival caster Cartoon Network under the AOL-Time Warner family had a big impact on this kids upfront. Competing for the same ad dollars in some instances, the two nets are also starting to approach players as a singular entity and are sharing the Toonami branded packaging in the afternoons. ‘They pushed a lot of people with joint deals, and to see them leverage each other’s strengths and weaknesses in pursuit of a common goal is an interesting sign of things to come,’ says Wagner.

The only player to actually show a revenue increase, some of Cartoon’s US$10-million increase over last year may be attributed to the combo sales approach. The net racked up US$140 million in ad commitments, while Kids’ WB! was slightly down from last year at about US$70 million. ‘They work very effectively together and actually do a better job for AOL-Time Warner as a whole,’ says John Muszynski, executive VP and chief broadcast investment officer at Starcom Worldwide.

Integrated deals were also a buzz word this year. ‘Very few of our clients are just buying kids television,’ says TN Media’s Blasius. ‘They’re buying a variety of things, with kids being one area of their focus, but we are looking to do all of those deals together.’

Though Disney didn’t grow its dollar volume this year (it made an estimated US$70 million between ABC Saturday morning, Buena Vista and Toon Disney), the Mouse House was notably more successful at refining its focus and better positioning itself in the kids marketplace. Under the leadership of Gary Montanus, senior VP of Disney Kids Network sales, the outfit was aiming to avoid being the last piggy to market (as it had been the last couple of years). The second goal was to show the industry that it could be a good promotional partner by driving penetration for Toon Disney. And lastly, Disney set out to showcase its programming flexibility by moving Disney Channel series like Even Stevens and Lizzy McGuire to its Saturday morning broadcast block, and by shifting Tarzan–which was originally slated to be Toon Disney’s first original show–into the Buena Vista lineup.

The question mark hanging in the air over the sale of Fox Family Channel to ABC caused FFC’s sales to dip by about US$25 million over last year. Starcom’s Wagner explains why Fox Family was on the bottom of many lists this year: ‘It’s too hard to predict now how things are going to look in six months,’ says Wagner. ‘And I think there’s a legitimate question about the long-term viability of the weekday afternoon daypart on Fox Kids.’ The channel shaved off its weekday morning programming and moved the strong 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. slot to 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., when most kids are still in school.

Bringing in about 40 new clients including Osh-Kosh, Levi’s, Kmart and Trident this year, Nickelodeon tried to grow its ad reach by looking to other areas of spending outside of the traditional kids advertisers. Targeting moms, Hispanics and tweens, Nick worked up multi-year deals with Gateway, Embassy Suites and Ford. Nick was the leader in this year’s upfront sales with an estimated US$300 million, but even it is pegged to be down this year over last.

Media buyers remain concerned about the future, citing several good reasons for their pessimistic outlook. The toy industry, which accounts for 30% to 33% of kids spending, is still in a slump; on the packaged goods side (making up 28% to 30% of spending), continued advertiser consolidation highlighted by Nabisco and Kraft pairing up means smaller budgets; and the fast-food segment is experiencing puny levels of growth.

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