Beta Surveys Give Nets a Chance to Blow Horns

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Every year, Beta Research Corp. releases reams of data monitoring which major, mid-sized and emerging networks have captured the most top-of-mind interest — and which offer the most value — among both consumers and operators.

And every year, several of the more publicity-minded cable programmers look to gain extra mileage out of their Beta rankings by trumpeting their positioning by highlighting the ratings in their promotional materials and press releases.

Indeed, A&E Television Networks, Discovery Networks U.S. and Lifetime Television have been among the most aggressive in issuing press releases and/or touting their Beta rankings via ads in such publications as CableFAX, Cable Sales Professional
and Multichannel News.
The desire to use the ratings sometimes overwhelms networks and, like impatient children on Christmas morning, they pull the wraps off the publicity tool far too soon. There have been a number of recent instances when one or more networks distributed releases prior to Beta's embargo dates. When asked about any recurrences, Beta Research president of the cable division Andy Klein said, "I'm not aware of any. They've been pretty good recently."

Still, networks like to wield the Syosset, N.Y.-based company's imprimatur when they can. Another recent case in point: Toon Disney devoted just over two pages to its top ranking in Beta's perceived dollar value among adults 18-plus and children under 13, through materials it distributed to local cable ad-sales executives in late May.

A look back at Beta's scorecards from surveys of operators and subscribers over the past two years show that both groups are sometimes — but not always — on the same wavelength when it comes to selecting the top channels and their perceived monetary value to them.

POLLING THE OPERATORS

In its "2000 Cable Operator Evaluation Study" of major and mid-sized networks, conducted last fall, ESPN led the major-networks contingent with a perceived value to operators of 90 cents per month — "significantly higher" than in 1999, Beta noted. In 1999, Discovery Channel and ESPN occupied the top two spots in the category.

As for other programmers, The Weather Channel stormed into the top five, bypassing Lifetime, Nickelodeon and A&E Network — all down, while A&E dropped out of the top five in the 2000 study. Disney Channel's value also dipped, but it was reclassified as a major network for 2000.

Although MSNBC's perceived value held even with the operators' 1999 tally, the news network rose from fourth to first, as Disney Channel, which occupied the top spot the previous year, left that group and the others in the top five slipped — Food Network, WGN and Country Music Television. Travel Channel improved on its 1999 performance to bump CMT out of the top five.

Beta noted that its 1999 study was the first time it measured networks by perceived dollar values.

For the report, the research firm measured 30 major networks, defined as having 50 million subscribers or more, and 15 mid-sized channels (15 million to 50 million subscribers). Beta lists channels with 1 million to 15 million subscribers as emerging networks.

In a footnote, Beta said that differences of under 20 cents from one year to the next are not significant. Klein later explained said that's because "they're not percentages. In a mean from zero to $20 or so, that's an average of a 0.2."

SUBS' PREFERENCES

Looking back at Beta's "2000 Cable Subscriber Evaluation Study" — also conducted last fall — the data indicated little change among consumers' major-network favorites since 1999. However, the number of respondents citing Discovery Channel (37 percent), ESPN (29 percent) and History Channel (22 percent) as their favorites rose considerably. A&E held steady at 23 percent.

When it came to assigning monetary values to the networks, the Beta data revealed that consumers tended to give major networks higher dollar values than the operators did. The subscribers surveyed gave each of the top-five programmers perceived monthly values exceeding the $1.50 mark. Discovery, Disney Channel and ESPN were, by far, the frontrunners at $1.74 apiece. The History Channel ($1.67) in turn placed well ahead of The Learning Channel ($1.58).

All of the top-10 programmers rated higher in value among subscribers than with cable affiliates, as did the top-five mid-sized networks.

Generally speaking, Beta observed that the major and mid-sized programmers ranking best on its "favorites" study among subscribers tended to be those with clear brand identities and program differentiation.

EYEING EMERGERS

Turning to emerging digital networks and packages, Beta's "Cable Operator Channel Carriage Study" indicated that Lifetime Movie Network was the channel most cable systems (82 percent) were interested in adding to their lineups. Data gathered from 156 affiliates last September showed the Lifetime sibling beat out Discovery Health Channel (77 percent), The Biography Channel (76 percent) and two CNN spinoffs, CNN/SI and CNNfn (72 percent and 71 percent).

Rounding out the top 10 — of the 30 newcomers measured — were, in descending order: ESPN Classic, Romance Classics (now WE: Women's Entertainment), Fox Movie Channel and Toon Disney. Each network garnered interest from at least 66 percent of the responding operators.

Beta also reported that only 51 percent of the operators surveyed planned to add at least one service to their analog basic or expanded basic tiers by year-end 2001 — down from 74 percent the year before.

Concentrating on the desires of the big operators, Beta found that Nickelodeon's diginets and Scripps Networks' Do-It-Yourself were tied, with 58 percent of MSO executives expressing interest, with Oxygen Media right behind (56 percent).

Comparing its studies from 2000 and 1999, Beta noted that LMN, Discovery Health, CNN/SI, CNNfn and the MTV/VH1 Digital Suite tallied "significant increases" among non-affiliated operators.

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