Operators team with programmers and rivals to drive local ad revenue

Tools

Battles between cable operators and networks over the cost of programming continue to increase each year. But behind the scenes, many operators are teaming up with cable networks and even rivals like AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV) to sell local cable advertising--a business that generated $2.7 billion in revenue in 2012, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.

The FCC reported last week that cable operators lost 2.1 million customers between 2010 and 2012. Despite those subscriber losses, the nation's two largest MSOs continue to grow ad revenue, thanks in part to online advertising and ads placed in free video-on-demand programming. Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) generated $488 million in ad revenue in the first quarter, a gain of 2.7 percent compared to the same period in 2012, and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) saw its first-quarter ad revenue jump 5.2 percent to $222 million.

Cunningham

CAB CEO Sean Cunningham, a former Universal McCann EVP and managing director, said cable's multiplatform reach was a key focus of the pitch that he and cable sales execs gave to local advertisers at recent meetings in Detroit, Jackson, Miss., and Portland, Maine. He noted that about half of cable triple-play subscribers keep their local operator's portal as the home page on their Web browsers, and that the average cable subscriber watches about 70 hours of cable programming each month on TV and another 20 hours online. "When we're coming in and talking to people who are running car dealerships, furniture stores and medical practices, we're able to start the conversation with, 'How would you like 91 hours-worth of access?'"

While demand for multiplatform advertising continues to grow, local cable avails remain the bread and butter for cable ad sales executives. Cable networks ranging from Comedy Central to TNT set aside about 2 minutes per hour of ad inventory that pay TV distributors can sell locally. Operators typically set aside about one-third of their local ad avails to sell regionally through cable advertising interconnects that let advertisers reach an entire Nielsen DMA with a single order. Operators also set aside about one-third of their inventory for national advertising. Rep firms such as Viamedia and National Cable Communications, which is owned by Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications, use local cable avails to give media buyers the ability to to run the same commercial on cable systems nationwide or to buy packages of local avails that can be targeted to specific neighborhoods or demographics.

As part of their carriage deals with distributors, major programmers like Discovery Communications (Nasdaq: DISCA), Turner Broadcasting, Fox Networks and Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) supply operators with marketing support like customizable tune-in spots for new shows aimed at driving local ad revenue for operators and boosting national ratings for their cable networks.

Lumpkin

HGTV and Food Network parent Scripps Networks Interactive launched an incentive program in 2007 called Real Rewards, which it has used to motivate operators to use their cross-channel inventory to run tune-in spots for programs like Food Network's "Rachel vs. Guy: Celebrity Cookoff." Many of the tune-in spots contain a 10- or 15-second tag that the operators can sell to restaurants, retail stores and other local advertisers.

Scripps SVP of Affiliate Marketing Patricia Lumpkin said the more spots that a cable system runs, the more points it can redeem for prizes ranging from high-end electronics to trips to Paris or cruises.

"As they take advantage of those opportunities, we in turn ask for a given number of cross-channel spots. It's incremental to them, and conversely we're getting a benefit from it," Lumpkin said, noting that the cross-channel spots help boost ratings for HGTV, Food, Travel Channel and DIY Network.

Programs Scripps is currently promoting through cross-channel campaigns with affiliates include HGTV's "Flea Market Flip" and Travel Channel's "Baggage Battles" and "Rock My RV with Brett Michaels."

In addition to supplying operators with taggable tune-in spots, Scripps gives operators customizable banner ads and social media promotions as well as PowerPoint presentations that can be used to lure media buyers, Lumpkin said.

Chopper Live invitation

Discovery Communications builds its cross-channel ad campaigns around "tent pole" original programming such as its annual "Shark Week" event. "We try to customize it for the particular distributor. We'll offer a sweepstakes where they can give away trips to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas," said Discovery SVP of Domestic Distribution Courtney Menzel.

Programmers recruit the celebrities who star in hit series to help with some of their local affiliate ad campaigns. Discovery Channel teamed up with Cox's Cox Media arm last fall to promote its "American Chopper" series. Cox was able to invite its local advertisers to the "Chopper Live" program it shot at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and media buyers were also invited to a VIP party after the show, where they could mingle with the stars of the show.

Menzel said Discovery also runs affiliate promotions aimed at helping operators grow video subscribers.Discovery kicked off a local market tour for its Discovery Familia network on July 20 called "Es Para Ti," which features activities for parents and kids. The promotion, which Discovery said could help operators sell subscriptions to Hispanic subscribers, includes spa giveaways and appearances by Discovery Familia mascot Doki.

Grutko

Comcast uses its cross-channel inventory to sell taggable spots to local advertisers and promote its Xfinity product, according to SVP of Marketing Kellie Grutko. "We work with clients that want to be associated with their [network] brands," she added.

The MSO is also relying more on social media to promote local advertising. Comcast Spotlight's Twitter account posts links to blogs about how local auto dealers are using cable ads. One recent blog post details how Comcast Spotlight worked with Charter Communications: It sells local ads for Charter's cable systems in Tennessee. It teamed up with a local Chevrolet dealer near Fort Campbell Army base on a "Freedom Cruze" promotion. The car dealer wrapped a Chevy Cruze truck in yellow vinyl and encouraged community members to sign messages welcoming soldiers back to the base at local events.

Grutko said Comcast Spotlight is already preparing for a local ad-sales push for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It expects more demand for multiplatform advertising in Olympics coverage from its NBCUniversal subsidiary.

And CAB's Cunningham said the 2014 election season will be another big local ad-sales driver for cable operators. Media buyers are relying more on local cable advertising on niche cable networks to reach the demographics they are targeting, Cunningham said. "Political has been our fastest growth category," he added.

Top Local Cable Ad Sales Performers
  Q1 2013 Change from Q1 2012
Comcast $488 million 2.7%
Time Warner Cable $222 million 5.2%
Charter Communications $27 million -9.1%
Cablevision $60 million -18.5%

Source: Q1 earnings reports from public MSOs