Cable's hot; buyers stay cool

Big share, ratings gains don't translate to big bucks

By all accounts, cable is enjoying a fantastic summer, commanding a bigger share than broadcast and scoring impressive ratings with movies, sports and original series.

So why aren't media buyers starting to throw more money cable's way?

"The aggregate number is up, but it's distributed among more players," said Horizon Media media buyer Aaron Cohen. "You buy cable for specific demographics or niches, not for a collective [share]."

Buyers say cable's growth is helping raise awareness, but that's cold comfort to cable nets seeking more dollars for that increased visibility. "Viewers are moving, and advertisers are staying with broadcast. The model is outdated," said Betsy Frank, executive vice president of MTV Planning and Research.

More eyeballs should make cable a competitive alternative to broadcast. Sales volume and cost per thousand (CPM) should go up. As evidence, cable execs point to their strong household and demo ratings this summer. Some cable shows are pulling impressive numbers. TBS grabbed a 5.9 for its original movie Atomic Twister; TNT scored a 4.8 for Door to Door, starring William H. Macy. USA is celebrating the success of two original dramas: Monk
is averaging a 3.4, The Dead Zone
a 3.3. ESPN has notched ratings above 4.0 for baseball, football and World Cup soccer.

Despite cable's ratings gains, broadcast networks are awarded 82% of the ad dollars, lamented Turner Broadcasting research chief Jack Wakshlag. "If you're a big cabler, this makes you nervous. You might do things that are unwise, like drop your CPMs 10%," he added, likely referring to Lifetime, USA Network and Sci Fi moves.

Lifetime is on pace to finish the summer with a 2.1 rating, followed by TNT with a 1.9 and Nickelodeon and USA with a 1.8 each. The biggest increases over last summer were seen by Fox News Channel (+57%), FX (+29%), Hallmark Channel (+25%), and ESPN and Food Network (+20%).