NATPE: Is Cable Threatened by Alternate Distribution or Exploiting It?

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Cable – threatened by alternate distribution streams or already exploiting them?

While a panel of cable heavyweights began arguing the latter today at NATPE, one former cable executive spoke up with a slightly less rosy outlook.

"If you're a fully distributed cable company, you're not going to get growth in terms of affiliate deals," said Bill Hilary, the onetime Comedy Central and BBC America exec who's now president of entertainment for Interpublic's Magna Global. "And ad revenue is flat, so where does the growth come from? You've gotta ask that question."

Hilary was not so much negating the successes cable networks have had with original shows, but pointing out the struggles they face ahead as advertisers are most often no longer satisfied by buying time on just a TV
show, no matter how big a hit it is.

Three of Magna's clients, for instance, are planning broadband networks of their own, essentially bypassing cable channels altogether to market their products, Hilary said.

The point was not lost on the panel's cable network reps, A&E TVNetworks EVP/GM Bob DeBitetto and Oxygen Programming/Marketing President Debby Beece, as well as Scott Koondel, EVP, Off-Network, Cable & Interactive Media for CBS TV Distribution Group.

Koondel maintained that while advertisers may be putting dollars toward online buys, networks should still focus on finding hits for big screen in the living room.

"Appointment television is not dead," he said, pointing to the Hallmark Channel's acquired series Walker Texas Ranger, which still amasses a sizable number of people watching on their TV screen, even as a nearly
15-year-old show.

"I feel like we can't give up," Koondel said. "We've got to try to make the big screen special. For someone to get excited about a big series premiere on television – we can't take this away."

Many networks are seeking a happy medium by continuing to put money into originals, but striving to make the ads innovative enough to make people want to watch them, too.

A&E is "obsessing over" how to reinvent the pod to keep people through commercial breaks, DeBitetto said. The network recently debuted an "isopod"– a two-minute trailer from Paramount – about 40 minutes into its basic cable premiere of The Sopranos.

Motivating networks – both broadcast and cable – is not only advertising dollars shifting online, but Nielsen's impending plan to provide advertisers with minute-by-minute show ratings, which would illustrate whether viewersof any particular show actually stuck around for their ads.

"But don't assume think that will tip the balance of power in advertisers' favor," said Oxygen's Beece.

"Maybe we should reject commercials," she said. "Say, 'if you're not going to be able to keep our ratings, then we reject you.'"

Replied DeBitetto: "We can't afford to reject commercials just yet."