Last spring, ABC ran newspaper ads mocking cable,
insinuating that it owed most of its ratings power to wrestling. Now, the Big Four
broadcast television networks seem ready to adopt the World Wrestling Federation war cry,
"Get ready to rumble!"
Apparently disgusted with the perception that the
broadcasters are becoming dinosaurs due to steady ratings inroads being made by the basic
cable networks, top-level executives want to move forward with a new, as yet unnamed
organization that would present the broadcasters in a better light, said sources close to
Ironically, two of the three network presidents leading the
charge used to work basic cable networks. ABC Television Network's Pat Fili-Krushel
was head of programming at Lifetime Television, and NBC Entertainment's Scott Sassa ran
Turner Entertainment. CBS Television's Leslie Moonves is said to be the other
ringleader. Fox Broadcasting Co. is also said to approve.
Quipped, Ave Butensky, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising, "I guess if
you're in a different zoo, you get different stripes."
Details of the organization's promotional tactics were
sketchy last week, but since each of the four broadcast networks has cable network
interests, they may be only fighting themselves.
The real issue is money. Although the Big Four's take
at the close of last summer's 1998-99 upfront marketplace was triple the size of
cable's, ad sales were flat. Cable, on the other hand, notched record ad sales
growth. In that light, broadcasters don't want to be seen as losing status in the ad
The TV networks' proposed counter-offensive would put
Advertising Bureau in the crosshairs. The CAB has
issued a steady stream of press releases detailing cable's upward ratings trend at
the broadcasters' expense.
At the CAB, a spokesman said last Friday, "There will
be no strategic counterattack till we know what they're up to," he said.
"Not to be smug, but this seems to reinforce that we're doing an effective
The CAB fired off the latest salvo in this war of words
early last week, when it issued a press release crowing that basic cable primetime
viewership rose during the first 11 weeks of the fall season, through Dec. 6, according to
the association's analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
Specifically, the CAB pointed out that basic cable
networks' combined average household rating rose 2.6 points (12.5 percent) to 23.4
and their audience share gained 4.5 points (13 percent) to almost 39. In contrast, the CAB
added, the Big Four broadcast television networks saw their rating drop 2.7 points (7
percent) to 37; their share was off 4.3 points (7 percent) to 61.5.
Officials at the TV networks were being tightlipped late
last week, refusing to discuss whether they might broadcast ads in addition to issuing
press releases, and whether they might aim at consumers rather than the ad community.
Last spring the TV networks targeted newspaper ads toward
ad agency time buyers, trumpeting perceived advantages over cable. But those ads
didn't touch on the ratings erosion issue.
TBA's Butensky said last Thursday that the TV network
executives had not tipped him to the formation of such a group. But, based on previous
conversations with them, he said, "I know they were concerned about getting
browbeaten by all this baloney" from cable.
Officials at the TV and cable networks were closemouthed
last week. A CBS spokesman in Los Angeles said, "I'll politely decline
comment." Officials at ABC and NBC did not return phone calls by press time, and Fox
Broadcasting Co. officials were unreachable.
Cable network officials were reluctant to enter the fray
"I assume you've talked to CAB and NCTA?"
one spokeswoman asked. At Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc., a spokesman also said that any
comment should come from the CAB.