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Broadcasters Strike Back

In the battle for advertising dollars, TV stations argue that rival cable systems overstate their viewership 5/18/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

You know you must be doing something right when the competitor that used to ignore you is now spending thousands of dollars on research and promotion campaigns to show how ineffective you are.

It wasn't that long ago that broadcasters barely acknowledged the sales efforts of its local cable competition. But consolidation, technology (in the form of more extensive cable interconnects) and more aggressive cable sales pitches have changed all that.

And the numbers are beginning to add up. Charles Thurston, president of ad sales for Comcast Cable, said that, in 2000, cable MSOs and cable ad reps pulled about $252 million out of the Los Angeles market, or about 19% of the market's TV advertising.

Bill Fee, general manager, WCPO-TV Cincinnati, estimates that cable takes between 15% and 20% (between $21 million and $28 million) of the market's TV dollars, up from perhaps 5% a decade ago.

"Comcast is out there basically telling people they're going to eat our lunch," said a source at a major group TV owner. "You can't ignore that."

And the broadcast industry isn't. It has mounted an extensive campaign to "clarify" issues that it says have been muddled by cable's own effort to gain sales momentum. Much of the broadcast effort to point out cable's weaknesses has fallen to the Television Bureau of Advertising.

The TVB has focused both on the way Nielsen Media Research reports its ratings data and on how cable interprets and reports that data to clients and the press.

Perhaps the broadcasters' single biggest accomplishment in the propaganda battle so far has been persuading Nielsen to make substantive changes in the way it reports cable ratings in local-market reports.

Starting in the fourth quarter, Nielsen will specifically report ratings for cable program services that distinguish between viewing to cable systems and satellite services. Thus, an advertiser who wants to know how much of ESPN's audience in New York watched via Time Warner Cable and how much of the audience watched via DirecTV would be able see those ratings broken out separately.

It's an important distinction because cable ads sold locally don't appear on the satellite-delivered signals—a point the TVB and broadcasters never tire of stressing. And, in certain markets, the satellite portion of the viewing to a given program service climbs to 30%, even 40% of the total viewing to that service. So that's 30% or 40% of that programming service's audience that is not exposed to local cable ads.

But cable also benefits from Nielsen's new reporting method. For the first time, all the local cable ratings will be issued simultaneously with the broadcast ratings. Up to now, the cable ratings have been delayed by two weeks or more, giving broadcasters an unfair advantage, the cable side says.

Joe Ostrow, head of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, welcomes Nielsen's new reporting methods. Broadcasters, he said, "are playing their own version of Fear Factor. The reality is, they have a lot to be afraid of. Cable's audience continues to grow nationally, and locally as well."

Comcast's Thurston put its another way: "The more the TVB barks at the cable industry, I think the more positive attention we're getting."

TVB President Chris Rohrs counters that broadcasters just want advertisers to know what they're buying and who and how big the audience is when they buy local cable. "Cable MSOs are putting a huge emphasis on local sales now, and that's forced them to become more sophisticated in the numbers business.

"Driving this," he added, "is a desperate need for revenue as subscriber counts are falling. It's created a real urgency to drive revenue on the ad-sales side because there isn't growth on the subscriber side."

In April, right around the time of the TVB's annual conference in New York, the organization spent thousands on a 16-page advertising insert for ad trade publications. Much of it was used to detail DBS's audience gains at the expense of cable. "Satellite delivery is eroding cable's ability to deliver local ads," blared one line in the insert. It also detailed market by market the extent of that erosion.

And TVB will unveil a new pre-upfront ad campaign this week with a lead that said, "Apples to apples, broadcast TV has more juice than cable." The ad cites Nielsen data that, in April of this year, the top 151 rated shows in the adult 25-54 demographic were all broadcast shows: "Before you spend precious ad dollars on cable television, see if you like them apples."

Recently, Rohrs paid a visit to Cincinnati and made a presentation to about 100 local TV advertisers on behalf of the five local broadcasters in the market. Similar trips to other markets are likely, TVB said.

WCPO-TV's Fee said that the presentation was not "cable bashing." Rather, it involved "painting what we consider a more realistic picture of the ratings business in Cincinnati" than the cable operators'. Cable, he said, "has a history of showing cable ratings that are their universe, not the total universe." Having someone from outside the market—Rohrs, that is—make the presentation "gave credibility to it," said Fee.

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