The Cable Difference


The biggest changes in society happen so naturally that they're hard to even notice, and so it is with television. For a decade, maybe more, cable has largely set the agenda for the medium.

As John Rash, senior VP for Campbell Mithun, says in the opening lines of our cover story (see p. 22), “Cable networks are consistently trying to out-innovate broadcast television.”

They still succeed, by and large. And as the broadcast networks have now learned with series like 24, Lost and even Survivor, being different pays off.

That cable has arrived, artistically and financially, is no reason to scream, “Stop the presses!” But we lob grenades against media mediocrity regularly enough that it's reasonable to toss some laurels when merited.

Today, plaudits go to shows from Disney Channel's surprise hit High School Musical to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the most consistently trenchant (and hilarious) hour of TV.

Cable did not always prompt superlatives. Recall that ESPN went from airing Australian-rules football to Monday Night Football and is now an institution whose products range from a glossy magazine to sports bars.

CNN was once the employer of last resort. But when Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett holed up at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad during the first Iraq conflict, the world turned to them. Even NBC anchor Tom Brokaw told viewers, “CNN used to be called the little network that could. It's no longer a little network.”

Cable let television stretch, and find audiences yearning for distinct programming broadcast didn't provide.

So was born everything from MTV to the History Channel. Even Nick at Nite, which showed moldy reruns, in its earlier days massaged the idea by proclaiming it was “preserving our precious television heritage.”

Programmers can debate the impact of cable, but nobody can argue that cable networks aren't often-brilliant marketers who know the advantages of good branding. We have expectations of FX that we don't of NBC, right down to the promos.

Cable networks also were the first to home in on specific demographics rather than trying to pull every Tom, Dick and 55-year-old Harry into the tent. That encouraged broadcast networks to do the same, to pull away from airing bland, safe programming and begin to target the 18- to 49-year-olds that advertisers mainly want to reach—the ones they are always in danger of losing to cable.

Broadcast networks may still get misty for the days when three networks split the pie and cancelled shows that didn't get a 30 share. But now that NBC Universal also owns cash machines like USA and the Sci Fi Channel, and every other broadcast network owns lucrative cable properties, nobody's weeping.

Indeed, the programming divisions of three of the five broadcast networks are currently headed by executives who cut their teeth in the cable business and brought that sense of innovation with them. It doesn't always translate smoothly to broadcast networks. But cable competition has made the Big Four networks better, too. That's good for advertisers and great for viewers.