Cable Wants a Bigger Share

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Determined to carve out a larger slice of the political advertising pie, the cable industry aims to claim as much as 10% of the estimated $1.5 billion dollars that may be spent in 2004 by candidates in presidential, congressional and local races.

In New Hampshire — the subject of an article in The Wall Street Journal last week pointing to perceived shortcomings in cable ad sales to candidates — all six Democratic presidential hopefuls bought "soft" schedules, reaching various ad zones in New Hampshire, while four purchased time on the interconnect reaching the state. That's according to Charlie Thurston, president of Comcast Corp.'s ad-sales unit.

He rebutted points in the Jan. 21 Journal piece, saying cable has plenty of inventory available: Three 30-second spots per hour on 40 networks. He also said cable doesn't have vastly higher costs, versus broadcast stations, on a cost per thousand (CPM) viewer basis.

A 30-second spot on the evening news on local New Hampshire station WMUR-TV has a CPM of $14.60, versus $20.75 for a primetime unit on Lifetime Television — not the $48.20 listed in the article, Thurston said.

"With respect to the New Hampshire campaign, the reported difficulties with cable are totally contrary to the realities of recent buyer/seller experiences in the vast number of markets — big and small — across the nation," Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau CEO Sean Cunningham said in a statement.

Comcast Ad Sales senior vice president Hank Oster said the MSO held a "preliminary political summit" with sales personnel last April and May, then brought all sales personnel to New York for a two-day summit on the subject in September.

"In addition to the presidential race, we identified all of the key senatorial, gubernatorial action, where the swing states are for Congress," said Oster. "We're going after this business aggressively."

Asked for Comcast's political sales goals, Oster said: "We have high expectations. It's too early to tell. Let's see what happens after New Hampshire."

Chuck Cowdrey, vice president for political strategy for National Cable Communications, said the rep firm — and executives at owners Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications Inc. — have been charting their strategies and readying their sales staffs over the past year.

They hope to double the take rate from the campaign trail in 2000, when cable garnered 4% to 6% of political spending.

Cowdrey said that for the Iowa Caucuses, Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark had been using cable ads from the outset of their campaigns.

Belatedly, over the two weeks leading up to last Tuesday's Iowa caucus (won by Kerry, followed by Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina), former frontrunner Howard Dean bought a cable schedule.

"As the leader, maybe [Dean] didn't think of us. But as the others started to climb [in the polls], his camp came in," said Cowdrey.