In a major policy change, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau last week released viewership numbers for some individual cable networks-and then had to issue two major corrections to its figures.
The CAB has long provided the media with ratings and household-delivery statistics, based on Nielsen Media Research data. But the trade group carved those numbers up on an industry-wide basis, comparing the whole of cable with the performance of the broadcast networks as a group.
Last week, however, the CAB for the first time broke out household-delivery numbers for some individual cable networks, in addition to its overall broadcast-versus-cable comparison for the first week of the new TV season.
For example, the CAB ranked Fox News Channel No. 1 in terms of its percent growth in primetime-household delivery.
CAB officials said it was providing the individualized data to help answer inquiries about exactly where cable's audience growth is coming from. Nonetheless, its move to break out individual networks was unusual, and somewhat controversial.
The issue in the past has been a political hot potato, since many of the CAB's members have objected to singling out or highlighting any individual cable networks, several sources said.
Adding fuel to the fire, the CAB's first-time effort was marred by a number of errors, prompting the trade group to issue two corrections of its own data.
Several cable-network research chiefs were surprised last week by the CAB's change in policy, which was reportedly approved by the trade group's National Sales Advisory Board. A number of the researchers also weren't on board with the change, and want it reviewed.
"From its inception, the CAB's mandate has been to represent our industry, not individual cable networks," said Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner Broadcasting System Inc. "We'll discuss it with them."
Sieber's counterpart at USA Cable, vice president of research Ray Giacopelli, also had problems with the way the CAB was ranking and singling out individual cable networks.
"It's not the whole story," he said. "It's misleading."
At issue is the CAB's issuance of a press release with charts ranking the Top 10 cable networks in terms of their percent growth, and actual growth, in household delivery for primetime and total day. The CAB also released a media advisory saying it would continue to offer updates on the top-10 cable networks in terms of household growth.
"These data are provided to give you an additional perspective on the ongoing changes in television viewership," the advisory said.
Previously, Turner and Discovery Networks U.S. were the only centrol sources for Nielsen ratings and delivery data on dozens of cable networks. Networks also issue their own individual ratings.
Not everyone is happy with the way Turner reports the numbers. Turner's third-quarter figures drew recent criticism from some programmers, including ESPN, which objected to the way its ratings were rounded off.
According to Jonathan Sims, the CAB's vice president of research, the CAB decided to start breaking out data for individual networks in part because of media inquiries about cable's audience growth.
"For a long time, people are saying, 'What's going on with cable, can you give us some insights?'" Sims said. "So, the impetus for this was to satisfy our membership and the need for more clarity and explanation."
But breaking out individual cable networks by household growth-rather than ratings-often gives the spotlight to younger, growing services, such as FNC, Bravo and Travel Channel. That raises objections from established, fully distributed services.
There are other concerns, as well.
"If all you're looking at is household-delivery growth.some will look at that and see Fox News and Sci Fi Channel, and say they're only on there because of their subscriber gains, not viewership gains, and that's not true," Giacopelli said.
Sieber complained that the CAB didn't have the resources to provide "a context" for the individual cable-network numbers.
The CAB had to make two corrections on its numbers, including one late Friday morning, two days after the group had sent its press release to the media. As it turns out, the CAB's initial listings of the top-10 cable networks in terms of primetime delivery included incorrect household numbers.
For example, FNC was initially reported as having 652,000 homes, up 318 percent. The corrected number was 499,000, a 220 percent increase.
The CAB blamed the incorrect data on "inadvertent use of preliminary numbers from Nielsen because of processing delays" caused by the Columbus Day holiday. The CAB's first primetime-delivery numbers apparently included only five days, not seven, in the week of Oct. 2 to 8.
At least one cable researcher, Discovery Networks senior vice president of research Steve McGowan, had no problems with the CAB's breakouts.
"We certainly welcome it," McGowan said. "It tells us where the changes are occurring, where the biggest growth is. I see this as a good service."
Giacopelli would like an impartial group like the CAB to provide U.S. and coverage-area ratings, and delivery, for all individual cable networks, rather than Turner.
"Turner has been pretty equitable, but I'd rather it be in the hands of Switzerland," he said, referring to the CAB.