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Everyone loves a sure thing: Upfront odds are stacked in cable’s corner

As U.S. advertisers, media buyers and kidcasters prepare for the annual frenzy of upfront presentations later this month, the usually-upbeat event will more than likely be marked by an air of wariness and uncertainty. Most folks in the industry are still rebounding from last year's ad spend plummet, and there's just no telling how everything will shake out this time around. One thing that does seem certain, though, is that cable outlets stand to gain a lot of ground this year, as broadcast nets continue to falter in the race for kid ratings.
March 1, 2002

As U.S. advertisers, media buyers and kidcasters prepare for the annual frenzy of upfront presentations later this month, the usually-upbeat event will more than likely be marked by an air of wariness and uncertainty. Most folks in the industry are still rebounding from last year’s ad spend plummet, and there’s just no telling how everything will shake out this time around. One thing that does seem certain, though, is that cable outlets stand to gain a lot of ground this year, as broadcast nets continue to falter in the race for kid ratings.

Despite the fact that kids are watching more TV than last year–with Q4 2001 numbers up 3.8% over the same period in 2000–broadcast’s share of total kids eyeballs has been steadily shrinking, accounting for a paltry .69 hours of Q4 weekly viewing. Ratings at Fox Kids and NBC were so diminished that the veteran kidcasters opted to get out of the game, leasing out their blocks to Saturday morning newbies 4Kids and Discovery Kids. Although these sales have the production community abuzz about new co-production and sales opportunities, the reality on the advertising side of the equation is that no one is in a position to take a gamble on unproven broadcast windows right now.

Marketing is always the first thing that gets trimmed when the economy takes a nosedive, and curtailed ad budgets mean that every dollar must be spent with careful consideration given to future returns. As a result, media buyers will be pushing harder than ever to get more bang for their buck this year.

And this is where cable really has the competitive edge over broadcast nets. The kind of cross-platform promotional opportunities on offer this year from the united forces of Cartoon Network and Kids’ WB! should prove irresistible to media buyers looking for better ad dollar value. And the fact that Cartoon’s market penetration has increased by 60% in the last three years to 80 million households is just as appealing. Consistent ratings deliverer Nickelodeon, which will focus on selling complete ad packages that go beyond the channel alone to encompass the company’s high-traffic website and popular Nickelodeon magazine, is equally well-positioned to table the kind of multimedia deals buyers are going to be looking for. And then there’s Disney, whose ever-growing roster of media outlets now includes ABC Family, Toon Disney, Disney Channel and ABC’s One Saturday Morning block, in addition to off-air support tools like theme parks, on-line hubs and well-established kid mags Disney and Disney Adventures.

With their incredible ability to drive viewers from other media streams to the tube, it’s no wonder that cable nets are dominating the dial these days. And because they lack this kid-specific cross-platform infrastructure, it seems unlikely to me that they will be able to gain back the ground they’ve lost in the near future. But ultimately, it’s not really important whether it’s broadcast or cable snagging the lion’s share of ratings because either way, more viewers means more ad revenue, which in turn translates into more funding for commissioning and co-producing original programming with external sources. And that’s what keeps the kids entertainment world turning at the end of the day.

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