The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau's 10th annual Cable Sales Management Conference last week was at times, a contentious gathering.
On and off the podium, many cable operators went into combat mode as they attacked their media competitors — and even some ad-agency speakers — for not recognizing cable's back-office improvements and its continuing upsurge in the ratings.
Broadcast's ongoing erosion to cable has stirred the Television Bureau of Advertising into an aggressive anti-cable stance, which outgoing CAB CEO Joseph Ostrow jokingly described as "local broadcast television's version of Fear Factor."
After he becomes a CAB consultant — presumably sometime this summer, as a search for his replacement continues to meander — Ostrow hopes to see cable make "a dent" in the ad-sales battle against local and spot TV and newspapers.
The CAB's annual spring gathering reached new heights in attendance: 1,278 were on hand, with 256 from the agency and advertiser sides. Last year's meeting in Salt Lake City drew about 750, up from a low of 700 in Orlando, Fla., in 2001.
Discovery Networks U.S. president of ad sales Joe Abruzzese told attendees to maintain price positioning. "We don't close the [cost-per-thousands] gap [with broadcasters] by lowering our prices," he said.
When networks cut rates — as Lifetime Television and USA Networks did during last year's upfront — clients "put that money back in their pockets," rather than buying additional ratings points, Abruzzese noted.
Such rate rollbacks, he warned, only serve to undercut the industry's contention that cable is more valuable than broadcast.
Even as cable programmers aim for a greater share of the upfront business, he cautioned the cable industry to "target broadcast networks and not each other."
Several MSO executives made a similar point in subsequent sessions.
Comcast Cable Communications president Steve Burke told the CAB his aim is to make his MSO "the No. 1 source for local advertising."
The $1 billion it now generates in total ad revenue puts Comcast "in the same zip code" as the ABC and NBC TV-station groups, Burke estimated. And he added that Comcast intends to double that figure in the next five years — largely via the interconnect strategy cited in an earlier session by Comcast Ad Sales president Charlie Thurston.
22 of top 25
"Advertising was certainly one of the reasons" behind the AT&T Broadband deal, Burke said, noting that that acquisition expanded Comcast's footprint into 22 of the top 25 markets.
Growth will also come in part from better local ratings info. Burke promised Comcast would "do its part" to bring Nielsen Media Research's Local People Meters — now only in Boston — to its other top 10 DMAs.
Thurston, who noted that Comcast serves markets No. 3 through 10, said it's also important to get local measurement for the markets below No. 10. Comcast is talking with unspecified researchers about that as well, he added.
National Cable Communications head Tom Olson used the rep firm's spot-cable sales presentation to reiterate cable's message about greater targetability. He also touted cable's 24-hour local and regional news channels, now in 40 markets.
Olson also made this pitch to the ad folks: Consider replacing the least effective TV network or networks on a media plan with a spot-cable buy. It's the NCC's twist on Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc.'s "Millennium" research pitch, which calls for substituting weak broadcast shows with cable buys.
Turning to the back room, Olson said NCC's Web-based electronic-business order processing later this year will add Comcast, Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable — NCC's MSO owners — to its e-business site. All the MSOs will follow at some future point.
Charter Communications senior vice president of ad sales Jim Heneghan observed that "we need to give some 'props' to NCC… [for having] taken our industry light years" in terms of the electronic-data interface (EDI).
An ad-agency panel dampened the happy talk. Starcom senior vice president Kevin Gallagher pointed out that when individual cable programmers are examined, "the big ratings aren't there."
And Kelly, Scott & Madison executive vice president Jonathan Lichter stunned many MSOs with this comment: "It is a lot of work to buy cable." Tracking local audiences proves difficult when a system doesn't belong to an interconnect, or when satellite numbers are included, Lichter said.
"That makes our job more difficult in planning cable," he noted.