Typing Faster

January 9, 2010

Cable Drinks Broadcasts Milkshake, It Drinks It All Up!

Filed under: Future of TV, HBO, Hulu, Kvetch, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 5:00 am

“Television is dying” has been a pretty common refrain for the last few years, but it’s one that I’ve always laughed at. Television isn’t dying. Television isn’t going anywhere. What’s dying is the current broadcast business model.

And nothing shows that so well as this little article.

It’s a look at the remarkable power shift that’s occurred over the last ten years. It used to be that the broadcasters were the ones to watch, completely dominating the television landscape. Cable was an afterthought, if it was thought about at all.

That’s no longer the case.

The cable industry began the decade in the ratings shadow of the broadcast networks, but will end it towering above its Big Four competitors in record fashion.

Led by USA Network…the medium for the first time averaged a 60.7 primetime household share for the year. Cable’s performance nearly doubled the combined 32 share garnered by ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, according to a Turner Broadcasting System analysis of Nielsen data.

Cable’s household share has increased every year since 2000 — the last time broadcast-network programming was watched in a majority of households.

That is insane. Basic cable more than doubled the share of traditional broadcast networks, and has seen gains in every single year since 2000. What’s going on here? What accounts for such a significant shift?

It’s actually pretty simple, and cleaves closely to one of my most cherished industry sayings, namely that Content Is King. Cable companies started investing in the creation of high quality programming that people wanted to watch. And guess what? Eyeballs started to migrate from the mediocre quality product the broadcasters were putting out, and going instead to watch whatever was on cable.

“Viewing shares migrate to cable nets that fulfill strong brand promises with compelling TV programs,” Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at TBS Inc., said. “Broadcast networks seeking cost savings over audience growth inevitably lose market share to cable networks that invest and execute.”

He’s absolutely right. Just look at what happened to NBC, which saw The Jay Leno Show getting beat by basic cable programs on a (semi) regular basis.

Of course it’s not all the broadcasters fault. In the fragmented media market of today cable networks actually have some significant advantages, the most telling being that they can pursue a very narrow, distinct brand.

This branding strategy is probably most obvious when one considers the success of the USA Network. USA has become the dominant cable network, with an average of 3.2M viewers. Why is USA so dominant? Because they have a very distinct brand.

Take a look at USA’s flagship shows. You have Burn Notice, Royal Pains and White Collar. All of them are episodic shows, that blend high stakes (espionage, medicine and crime respectively) with a liberal dose of humor. They never go dark, and they’re always light and entertaining. People know exactly what they’re going to get when they tune into a USA show.

Broadcasters don’t have that luxury. The goal with broadcasters is to hit the four quadrants. They want everybody, which tends to result in shows that try to walk that middle line, please everybody, and wind up muddled.

Sure there are slight branding differences between the big broadcasters. ABC does light and frothy with a female slant. CBS is old and stodgy procedurals. NBC is about shiny, high end drama and comedy (or at least they used to be). Fox is a little edgier and more open to genre. But these are nowhere near as defined as those you’ll find on cable.

The situation gets even worse in Canada, where you have broadcasters cherry picking shows from all over the american spectrum. How can you expect Global or CTV to have a distinct brand when they’re airing a show from ABC, then NBC, then Fox back to back?

Branding is a powerful tool, and it’s the tool that cable companies everywhere have used to propel themselves into the premiere position in the television landscape. A solid brand lets people know exactly what they’re going to get when they tune into a specific station. Without it, the audience is just lost in the woods.


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