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Time Warner Cable's Challenge To The Networks

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AP

Until this year, this annual "Upfront" ad sales week in May has been reserved for the broadcast networks to sell their ad time. But this year Time Warner's Turner cable channels positioned their upfront ad sales period smack dab in the middle of the action, sending the message that they're taking on the nets head-on.

Wednesday morning Turner's TNT, TBS and TruTV presented their programming lineups to a slew of ad buyers at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan.

With big stars like Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick, and the whole lobby decked out with giant flower arrangements and bushes, it looked more like an old school times-are-good upfront presentation than one this year, after the 100 day-long writers strike that shut down TV production.

Turner's aggressive move for broadcast networks ad dollars is just the latest in cable TV's encroachment into the broadcast networks' territory. TNT's "The Closer" is one of the best-rated shows on cable, and many nights its ratings beat out the broadcast nets.

Year after year cable channels gain viewers and ad dollars, while the broadcast nets lose viewers and watch their ad dollars stay basically flat. I spoke with the head of Turner Entertainment, Steve Koonin, who said that he's positioning his upfront this week to show just how competitive his programming is.

The lineup of shows is packed with huge names-- Mark Burnett, George Clooney, Ray Romano, Robert Redford, Ridley Scott. With all those Oscar-winning names I asked Koonin if he's looking to compete with the likes of sister network HBO. He said they're aiming for a much more mainstream audience--they want the networks' viewers. TNT shows are all about high drama and relatable characters. TBS is all about comedy, and its youthful audience (Koonin tells me the average age of TBS viewer is younger than the CW's audience, around 30).

And this strategy actually makes a ton of sense for Time Warner. CEO Jeff Bewkes is in the process of spinning off the company's non-content related assets: Time Warner Cable and AOL. When Time Warner is eventually a pure content-creation/distribution company having more of these robust cable networks will be key. And I'm sure the fact that Bewkes background is at HBO, and he knows about high-quality content creation, plays a significant part.

I spoke to Rino Scanzoni, Chief Investment Officer for ad giant 'M Group.' He represents about a third of the ad dollars spent during the upfront ad sales piece. He says his clients do still want representation on the broadcast networks, but as cable ratings rise, cable becomes increasingly important, and a larger and larger percentage of ad spend.