Leaders & Bleeders: History Has Strong Future, Cable News Needs Help

For much of the TV business, summer doesn’t come with Memorial Day or reality gambles such as CBS’s “Dogs in the City” or NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.” It’s when there's a sightline to the end of the upfront market.

At the moment, it’s unclear when that will come into focus. The deal-making probably won’t be as swift as a year ago, but likely will move faster than the languid summer of 2009.

That’s when ESPN took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the buyer-seller hostage crisis. It called in Scott Van Pelt to star in “SportsCenter: Upfront Edition” videos. In one short, the anchor offered an easy solution for buyers looking to head off on vacation: "Be really original and put all your money into the 'Scott Van Pelt Show' on ESPN Radio. Your boss may not dig that, but my mom will ... It's a great show. I can sell stuff. Don't worry."

While wondering if Bravo might produce a “Million Dollar Listing No Longer” pitch or Lifetime will offer up “The Client List: Please Stay On It,” it’s time for this month’s “Leaders & Bleeders”:

LEADERS:

1) HISTORY – The network reaches multiple milestones with the “Hatfields & McCoys” mini-series, notably with an extraordinary 14.3 million viewers for the third episode by one measure, a cable record for an entertainment program. The success opens up opportunities for more scripted programming from the channel that has mastered the tough-guy reality genre with the likes of “Pawn Stars” and “Swamp People.” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Fox Networks head David Haslingden says he wants National Geographic Channel to follow the History blueprint.

2) OUTSPOKEN EXECUTIVES – General Motors CMO Joel Ewanick tells the Wall Street Journal that Facebook ads aren’t really effective and the Super Bowl is too expensive. Continuing to send messages that GM isn’t going to keep writing checks without demonstrative ROI, he tells Reuters it’s important to “let people know the bar is not open” from time to time. Meanwhile, NBC’s Ted Harbert condemns Dish Network’s new ad-killing DVR, prompting other networks to follow. And, he laid the groundwork for debate over a switch in currency in the national TV market to ratings that incorporate more DVR-enabled viewing.   

3) MINDSHARE – Unilever decides not to review its massive U.S. media buying account, keeping it at the WPP agency. That came after Mindshare retained the business in a review in 2010. Unilever is still deciding what to do with its global planning business, where a win would be a major addition for the agency by giving it a stronger foothold in emerging markets. As part of GroupM, Mindshare is likely to play a role in determining how much traction Nielsen’s fledgling Online Campaign Ratings gain across the industry as a standard for melding metrics for online video and TV.

4) LOCAL STATIONS – In 2008, Disney CEO Bob Iger was so glum on the sector during the depths of the recession that he thought all the hype about emerging carriage payments from operators was off-base. “That’s not going to save that business,” he said. It may just have and Iger’s pessimism has receded. Fox is bullish enough that it has a deal with Sinclair, where it could acquire stations in markets such as Raleigh and Cincinnati, according to B&C. Meanwhile, Bain is a boon as President Obama’s attack ads on challenger Mitt Romney’s tenure at the private equity firm look to be bringing some early political spending to swing states. And Super PACs are likely to generate loads of dollars through November. 

5) UNIVISION – Moving swiftly in the upfront market, the company cut its largest “single-agency” deal ever with Starcom’s Tapestry unit. CEO Randy Falco is an expansion mode to say the least. Joining with ABC to form a 24/7 English-language news network targeting Hispanics and others might open opportunities to attract new advertisers. Univision's fledgling cable sports network is starting to gain distribution, helped by a new deal with Verizon FiOS. And, it’s launching an AM radio network. Wanted: a host that brings Rush Limbaugh’s ratings, but not his politics?

BLEEDERS:

1) CABLE NEWS – The ratings are cratering across the board. It’s not so surprising they were down in May since the Osama bin Laden raid helped last year, it’s that the drops have been so precipitous. The New York Times cited declines of more than 20% at MSNBC and Fox News. CNN’s arresting drops continue and Anthony Bourdain has been called in for help next year. One strong performer by at least one measure last month was the morning “Fox & Friends,” according to TV by the Numbers. This week, that's a little disturbing since it aired what amounted to a four-minute attack ad on President Obama. The “fair and balanced” network then issued a statement saying the piece was not authorized by a senior executive. The video did include at least one interesting nugget (if true): the price of bread has increased 4% during Obama’s tenure. Oh, how a media buyer wishes it was that low with TV spots.

2) NBC THURSDAY AT 10 – After three dramas failed in the spot this season, NBC is going with a news magazine in the hour. It's a time period that in a pre-DVR era had an element of a national gathering place with top-notch dramas “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “ER.” So, this smacks of a surrender. “Rock Center with Brian Williams” is an intriguing show, though very low-rated one. It may gain some steam as counter-programming against dramas on CBS and ABC and certainly will save NBC money even if ratings are marginal. It remains possible if NBC finds a hit, it could bring a drama back to the time period in the fall of 2013, which would be cool.

3) BARRY DILLER – It's hard to argue he’s still one of the smartest, boldest executives in media after having made a career of staying a step ahead. But, his high-profile backing of Aereo, the service that streams local stations to iPads and other devices with DVR functionality, may be a loser. Aereo has received significant funding from Diller’s IAC, but doesn’t have a paying customer yet. It’s been in court this week trying to avoid an injunction that could shut it down as broadcasters are afraid it will deprive them of carriage payments. Diller suggested in a Senate hearing that Aereo is simply facilitating access to over-the-air TV the public is entitled to. Fair enough, but the company is looking to make money off that would-be free product.

4) MOBILE ADVERTISING – Projections about the revenue opportunities for ads on the screens that are increasingly held while watching TV are robust, yet Facebook’s warning that it isn't deriving any “meaningful revenue” from mobile ads has to be sobering. Research conducted by Nielsen at CBS’s Television City in Las Vegas shows mobile video ads run in conjunction with TV spots can boost purchase intent by 72%. But the study was commissioned by video ad network AdColony, so there may have been some home cooking. With all those tablets, finding a healthy ad model – or at least dollars -- for mobile video marks an enormous challenge over the next few years.

5) THE ECONOMIC (UP)FRONT – As buyers and sellers moved ahead with the upfront dance Friday, did any clients make emergency phone calls asking to cut budgets? News on the job front was distressing as unemployment rose for the first time in May since June 2011 and new-job creation was the lowest in a year. Also, the Dow moved into negative territory for 2012. Is it time for a "Blame Europe" song?

Tags: television
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