One of the biggest cable stories of last year was Lifetime Television's ascent to the top of Nielsen Media Research's basic-network primetime household ratings. But to hear many cable-network executives tell it, the female-targeted network's impressive achievement wasn't nearly as important as TBS Superstation's win in the race for primetime ratings among adults aged 18 to 49.
That's because networks hoping to draw blue-chip advertisers now deem their ratings within that advertiser-coveted demographic as the most significant indicator of overall success.
With cable-network penetration now pushing toward 90 percent of all U.S. television households, the weight placed on absolute household eyeballs during the 1980s and 1990s has given way to a more narrowly defined, demographic-oriented focus. Networks now try to convince advertisers that they're reaching viewers that can draw premium CPMs (costs per thousand), and no demographic is more desirable than 18-to-49-year-old adults.
Basic-cable programmers have attracted those viewers with a mix of smart, stylish and adventure-filled original and acquired movies, series and specialty programs, with the expectation that more advertisers will knock on their door.
Strength of The Demo
Cable networks may serve a litany of different and distinct demographics—from adult women to tweens and teens—but very few programmers would argue that the 18-to-49-year-old adult audience is most alluring to advertisers.
"Adults 18 to 49 is probably the demo that more advertisers are guaranteed on than not," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president of broadcast research at Initiative Media, a media buying and planning company. "It's broad, it encompasses a number of different network targets and can include some networks that otherwise would skew on the older or younger end."
Added E! Entertainment Television president Mindy Herman, "People go after that demographic for a reason—because it's the most valuable demographic for advertisers."
That's why many network executives place greater weight on demographic breakouts than household ratings—for years, the traditional measuring stick for a network's Nielsen success.
To illustrate the power of the demo, Herman noted the success CBS enjoyed in the early 1990s. The broadcaster won the household ratings for several consecutive years, but those triumphs were the equivalent of empty calories. Because so much of the CBS audience was aged 55 or older, Herman said, those ratings never translated into major ad dollars.
"If you're drawing an audience that's 55-years-old or older, then advertisers don't buy, regardless of the raw numbers," Herman said. "The challenge is that while there are a lot more people 60 and over that are bound to watch television, you can't aggressively go after that audience.
"If you mistakenly focus too much on the back end of the demo, you can age your audience right out of the economic model that the ad-supported side of the business wants."
But at the same time, trying to reach a younger demo—like teens or tweens—is not nearly as economically viable as targeting the 18-to-49 audience.
"Even if you're reaching adults 25 to 54, it's a tough sell, because it's an easier audience to get," added Herman. "The advertiser wants someone that's creating a brand-loyal customer, so that they can buy your brand of Kleenex for the next 50 years."
The CBS scenario has played out in cable, according to several network executives. Such niche services as Lifetime, Black Entertainment Television, Country Music Television and Food Network posted the biggest year-to-year increases in household primetime viewership ratings for 2001.
But those ratings gains didn't result in major advertising dollars, executives said, because most of the new viewers were either too narrowly defined or outside of the coveted 18-to-49 group.
Conversely, perennial ratings leaders TBS Superstation, USA Network and Turner Network Television found themselves losing primetime household numbers in 2001, compared to the prior year. But a closer look at demographic performances shows that the general-entertainment networks have clicked with 18-to-49-year-olds.
TBS Superstation was the most successful at attracting this group, with an average reach of 1.03 million viewers, an increase of 2 percent over 2000. That compares favorably to the network's 11 percent decline to a 1.7 year-to-year average in household ratings.
The same scenario played out for sister service TNT. The channel increased its base of adults 18 to 49 by 4 percent, reaching an average of 959,000 of those viewers. But its 1.6 household rating was flat compared to 2000.
Turner Entertainment Networks president Brad Siegel said that both TBS Superstation and TNT could have increased their overall household ratings, had the networks aggressively targeted viewers aged 50 or older. But performance within the 18-to-49 demographic was more important, he said.
"Households are completely meaningless to our business," Siegel said. "We sell demos, and almost every penny that we bring in on the Turner Entertainment Networks comes from our demographic performance—and that's probably true of virtually every other basic-cable network."
E!, which focuses on the Hollywood scene, also worships at the 18-to-49 church.
"In our world, all of our development is devoted to reaching people in that demographic," said Herman. "Household ratings, while nice, are not the measure of our success economically, and it's not the measure of our success from a performance standpoint."
Programming The Demo
Historically, broadcasters have drawn far more viewers aged 18 to 49, but basic cable has aggressively turned the tables within the past year.
Overall basic-cable viewership within the demo rose 11 percent from 2000 to 2001, according to the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. During the same period, the number of 18 to 49s watching the so-called Big Four broadcasters fell by 3 percent.
Cable's 18-to-49 viewership numbers will surpass those of the broadcast networks by year-end, said CAB president Joe Ostrow.
"For advertisers, they're recognizing where the trend is headed, so the advertisers can buy into a medium where they get bonuses, rather than in a medium where they just get make-goods," he said.
Recent changes in viewing habits among the 18-to-49 set have aided cable's growth.
"There's so much more solo viewing going on, either because people are living by themselves, or they're in a home where there are a number of TV sets," Ostrow said. "Given cable's many programming choices, it can provide programming that is specific to certain individuals."
And network executives said those viewers are watching a mix of reality-driven, adventure-oriented and information-heavy entertainment shows, both original and acquired.
A look at the top 10-rated cable shows among 18-to-49-year-olds evinces a variety of genres, ranging from MTV: Music Television's 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, to Cable News Network's coverage of the war on terrorism to TNT's original Western Crossfire Trail.
The demo's viewers are generally looking for programming that's entertaining but informative, with a little drama or unpredictability mixed in, executives said.
"I think entertaining values in factual programming are very, very important," said The Learning Channel executive vice president and general manager Jana Bennett, who will become director of television for the British Broadcasting Corp. in April. "It can't just be about storytelling, great characters and emotion, but it also has to be informative and fun.
"People have a sense of humor, and the programming should reflect that."
E!, which offers an all-original programming lineup, has a slight advantage, said Herman: It can infuse every show it creates with strong 18-to-49 appeal.
"Because we're a 100 percent originally produced entertainment network, we look at everything with an eye toward 18-to-49-year-olds," Herman said.
Even when E! creates a special aimed at an older audience, like the recent Sexiest Women Over 50, the network keeps to subjects that would be interesting to its target demo, she said.
"Because we're a niche network, we have an entertainment bent, so when we make selections in terms of subjects for [The E!] True Hollywood Story
or our ranking shows, we really think about people's popularity within that demographic [and] the type of stories that we need to trap that demographic," she said.
Mixing It Up
For other networks like FX, TNN: The National Network and the Turner services, the best formula is a mix of original and acquired programming.
FX has struggled to generate strong household ratings for its trifecta of high-profile, off-network series—Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and The Practice—but the shows have helped spur the network's 18-to-49 viewership numbers, said president Peter Ligouri. FX finished January 2002 up 24 percent within the demo.
"We always look at trying to obtain the right acquired show for our air that reaches our demo, because if you talk to our sales department, they sell demos, they don't sell households," Ligouri said.
The network hopes to further pull in viewers in March, when it premieres the gritty original police series The Shield.
TNN has used such acquired fare as Star Trek: The Next Generation
and World Wrestling Federation programming to drive 18-to-49-year-olds to its original shows, like Robot Wars
and Fame for 15. Those originals have a distinct demographic appeal, said TNN general manager Diane Robina.
Employing programs aimed squarely at the 18-to-49 audience, a channel that was once the country-music driven The Nashville Network was able to increase its viewership within the demo by 94 percent in 2001, compared with 2000.
"It's nice to be No. 1 over the total day like Lifetime, but being No. 1 in the demo is the most important thing," Robina said. "Whether it's through acquired series or original programming, our goal is to satisfy our audience."
The main drivers of Turner's success within the demo have been solid programming and the overall strength of its brands, said Siegel.
TBS Superstation rode to the top of the 18-to-49 ratings chart with popular theatrical films, including Rush Hour, Lethal Weapon 4
and Pretty Woman. TNT paced its strong demo performance on original movies such as The Mists of Avalon
and Call Me Claus, as well as the original series Witchblade.
Siegel said Turner's drama brand and TBS' commitment to sitcoms and movies will continue to resonate with 18-49 viewers and drive advertisers to the network.
Niche Net Also in Hunt
The general-entertainment networks aren't alone in gunning for adults 18 to 49. A number of niche networks have either placed full focus on the demo, or will aim significant blocks of programming at those viewers.
"Reaching that demo is clearly more important to us than targeting household ratings," said National Geographic Channel executive vice president of programming, production and news Andrew Wilk.
While NGC's core demographic is adults 25 to 54, Wilk said the network's programming also appeals to the much broader demo — so much so that the network is creating shows specifically for 18-to-49-year-olds.
Shows such as the fast-paced, informative Mummy Road Show
and Reptile Wild, with young, attractive hosts, are driving younger viewers to the channel.
"We have credentialed young people out there showing us new things about the natural world, and that's amplified by some of our adventure programming that's a bit more edgy than traditional Nat Geo programming," Wilk said.
Such programming has also helped NGC become the most-requested emerging network by viewers aged 18 to 49, according to a recent Beta Research Corp. study, said vice president of programming Christine Kuppens.
For other niche networks, like TLC, the 18-to-49 demo is typically the target for a certain daypart. TLC's strategy has been to develop several primetime shows meant to draw younger viewers, including the recently launched reality show Adrenaline Rush Challenge, Bennett said.
"We wanted to provide complementary, slightly younger skewing, slightly edgier network play to broaden our 25 to 54 demo," Bennett said. "It also helps our network portfolio, so we aren't only selling 25 to 54, but to the 18 to 49 as effectively."
Game Show Network, another older-skewing service, will completely alter its programming schedule to attract younger viewers within the 18-to-49 demo.
The network, which presently reaches the 25-to-54 group, has embarked on an aggressive original-programming development slate that will churn out at least two new programs a quarter, all aimed at younger adults. They include the fast-paced Russian Roulette, set to premiere in April.
Recently, the network acquired the off-network game show Greed
, which drew a strong 18-to-49 following when it aired on Fox.
"Advertisers will pay more for those viewers, so we're developing new shows to draw younger viewers," said GSN president Rich Cronin. "We're trying to build that audience while still maintaining our 25-to-54 audience, and we figure the ad sales will be able to reach those advertisers."
But even though so many networks are vying for the 18-to-49 audience, some executives believe the actual number of viewers within the demo may be too small for advertisers to make a major buy.
"Nobody buys every cable network," Koerner said. "The whole idea of television is reaching a mass audience at the same time, and if the advertiser doesn't believe that a network is delivering a large enough audience, they'll look for someone who will."
There are a number of general-entertainment networks that would adequately hit that demo, she said, but individually they can't compare to the reach of broadcast.
"It's not that cable isn't valuable, but to say that they're comparable is not accurate," she said. "Network television will get you the largest quantity of your target audience at one time, because of its distribution and audience share. But they're also more expensive, so cable is often used to make a television buy more efficient.
"Yet, you have to buy many more spots in cable to get the same number of potential viewers than broadcast networks," she added.
General-entertainment service USA Network specifically sells to an older 25-to-54 audience to avoid the logjam of networks trying to reach the more appealing 18-to-49-year-old viewer.
"Because it's such a crowded field, we want to satisfy the 25-to-54 viewer and dominate that [marketplace]," said USA executive vice president and general manager Michele Ganeless.
But while USA doesn't target 18-to-49-year-olds, it won't ignore them either. Such original series as Combat Missions
and acquired films like The Waterboy
draw younger viewers, as well as advertisers who seek that audience.
Advertisers also continue to narrow the definition of their target audience, which cuts into the overall value of the 18-to-49 demo. Adult demographics typically account for 50 percent of the business when compared with such specific groups as men, women and kids, said Lifetime senior vice president of research Tim Brooks.
"If you break it down further, the adult 18-to-49 audience might account for roughly 25 to 30 percent of the business, so to say that that should be the standard for networks to be measured is silly," Brooks said.
And some network executives insist that household ratings are still an important measure of a network's ability to draw viewers.
"Households still matter, and our goal is to increase households while also increasing younger adult demos," said GSN's Cronin. "We don't want households to drop in half just in order to get a young demo.
"The reality is that every network is going to spin their ratings to make their numbers look as best as possible, and also different networks have different strategies," he added. "We're fortunate that our niche is owning games on television, but that's not a narrow niche, but rather a mass-appeal idea."
Ultimately, advertisers will seek out the programming that best fits their needs. If a cable network can serve one or two of the more popular demos, said Initiative Media's Koerner, then its future prospects are good.
"Every individual advertiser will have very specific targets, and they're not necessary 18 to 49, but it could be 25 to 54 or 18 to 34; it could be women, maybe men," she said. "If a network can reach a few demos, all the better."