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MTV Networks (NYSE: VIA) is bringing out as many diverse stars as possible for what is nevertheless considered a more scaled down upfront presentation this year. Justin Timberlake, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, George Foreman and Sarah Silverman have been enlisted to help convince advertisers to part a greater portion of their marketing budget. Next week, the four major broadcast networks will put on their respective dog and pony shows, while AdAge reports that Merrill Lynch’s Jessica Reif Cohen is forecasting upfront ad sales will be down somewhere between 2 and 14 percent. The reasons are fairly obvious: the dismal economy, ratings decline and the lingering effects of the 100-day writers strike.
MTV is hosting its event around the corner from its offices at Times Square’s Nokia (NYSE: NOK) Theatre. The show is beginning now with a performance by hip hop dance troupe Jabbawockeez, with Jon Stewart taking the stage to host. “I thought we don’t do these anymore; that’s why we had the writers strike,” he quipped at the opening, as he was joined on stage by Stephen Colbert with his ever-present bag of Doritos.
— Long live Led Zep: Mika Salmi, MTVN’s president of Global Digital Media, provided an overview of the network’s many vertical sites, virtual worlds and games. But this year, the emphasis is on games. The company has said it will unveil 1,600 games on its sites this year; Salmi made a special pitch to advertisers regarding plans to create a gaming site aimed at teen girls. But the big praise was for Rock Band, which helped boost Viacom’s Q1 earnings last week. Salmi: “Who knew kids would be into classic rock? Long live Led Zeppelin.” Mobile has also become more important in the past year, with MTVN having delivered 57 million mobile video streams last year.
— ROI promises: Hank Close, president of MTVN ad sales, took a few minutes to promote the company’s research and how the network can prove its connections between advertiser and consumer. “Multiscreen measurement is a core competency for us. We found that TV is still the biggest driver of brand awaremess, but multiplatform buys can triple the awareness compared to a single media format operating alone.” Like Salmi, Close put a spotlight on mobile entertainment marketing initiatives. In January, Digital Fusion, MTVN’s new media ad sales force, partnered with T-Mobile on short-form mobile videos, which received 700,000 streams. More after the jump
— McGrath outdoes Silverman: While everyone knew what they were getting when comic Sarah Silverman took the stage to perform an ebulliently profane song in honor of GroupM Chief Investment Officer Rino Scanzoni, MTVN chairman and CEO Judy McGrath got big laughs and a few surprised gasps after she was introduced by Timberlake. Referring to the pop singer’s notorious appearance in a Saturday Night Live musical digital short (an uncensored, explicit version of the clip is available here), McGrath thanked Timberlake for visiting her with a “large box” around the holidays.
— Dauman: What upfront recession?: On the sell side, the trick of every upfront presentation is to position your network as most likely to increase your prices over the previous year. With prices expected to decline (see Jessica Reif Cohen’s expectation above), this year’s positioning is a little more difficult, as media buyers and analysts are even more dubious about price increases this time around. I spoke with Philippe Dauman, CEO of MTVN parent Viacom, about the network’s case to advertisers: “I think the upfront in general looks pretty good. People who stayed out of the upfront last year, quickly came to regret it in the scatter market.”