Backtalk: Cables Meteoric Rise


Timing is everything, and that holds particularly true forcable, a medium with a ratings performance for the first quarter of 1998 that should bodeextremely well for the soon-to-occur upfront national-advertising market.

Already in early April, the denizens of Madison Avenue, whocontrol where and when billions of advertising dollars that are earmarked for televisionwill be dispensed, are mumbling that this will be a banner year for cable's upfrontnational-ad sales.

Some are already predicting that the nation's advertisers-- for a variety of reasons, but mostly citing the current softness of thebroadcast-scatter market -- will shift as much as $500 million to cable: In other words,new money for the medium.

Given the volatility of ad spending in general, it'sanyone's guess whether that will actually happen.

However, being a betting woman, I lay odds on cable.

Madison Avenue buyers are not the only ones abuzz about theapproaching upfront market. But the story line is a whole lot different for the pinstripeson "Broadcast Row," who are now talking almost sheepishly amongst themselvesabout what can be done, if anything, to stop cable's ratings from soaring.

Several weeks ago, on St. Patrick's Day, the chieftains ofthe four broadcast networks met privately to agree not to disagree in public about theirvarious strategies.

Rather than continuing to snipe at one another's strategiesin public, they vowed to promote the value of their networks versus cable.

How they can convincingly do that with media buyers in themonths ahead, when upfront buying begins in earnest, will be interesting -- if not sheerentertainment -- to hear.

And we haven't heard any of the details to date.Undoubtedly, the spin will be most difficult for them to weave this go around, becausecable has an unassailable story to tell.

Cable's staggering growth last quarter seemed to havesurprised even cable programmers, including the biggest winner, USA, which aired MobyDick, the miniseries that delivered the largest audience in the history of basiccable, posting a 8.1 rating.

Moby Dick and other series made USA the No. 1-rankedcable network, posting a 2.6 rating for the quarter, a 30 percent increase over a yearago.

Looking at the first quarter overall, basic-cable ratingsskyrocketed 14 percent in primetime, posting aggregate ratings of 22.4, according toNielsen Media Research.

In contrast, the Big Four broadcast networks continued downthat slippery slope that they've been careening down for years, posting a 3 percent dropin primetime ratings.

If that yet-unabated trend continues, the day is probablycloser than we all think when cable networks will achieve pricing parity with the BigFour.

People who measure those things pretty much agree that theday of parity is another 10 years away, and not quite within grasp.

But Myers Consulting Group, in its "The Myers Report:Media 2005," predicts that as early as 2005, cable- and broadcast-network CPMs (costper thousand homes) will even out.

That's only seven years away, and other cable networksbesides USA continued to boast strong audience gains in the first quarter.

The victories were all over cable's lineup. For example,Lifetime Television had its best first quarter ever, posting a 1.8 rating, a 20 percentincrease.

Likewise, newcomer The History Channel had a 20 percentratings increase, coming in with a 0.7.

There's no doubt that broadcasters, in their new fight tostave off further erosion, will sneer at History's 0.7 rating and say that it's a sliverof what they deliver.

But that sliver represents growth for History, and that'ssomething that the broadcasters haven't been able to crow about for years.

Nor will it be easy for them to explain away the success ofMoby Dick and its 8.1 rating.

That's a number that any of the Big Four would be thrilledto get for their breed of mostly inane sitcoms.