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Last December 5th, TNT had a pretty good night. Its original movie, The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, pulled a 2.8 national rating in adults 18-49—not terribly impressive compared to the huge ratings racked up by broadcast hits like American Idol and Desperate Housewives, but not too shabby either. After all, it beat a bunch of network programs head-to-head in that demo, including CBS’ A Very Married Christmas movie, NBC’s Fear Factor, Fox’s My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss and the WB’s Charmed. Other cable programs this season that likewise toppled Big Four competition straight up include FX’s Nip/Tuck, USA’s The Mummy Returns, Comedy Central’s Blue Collar Comedy Tour 2, TBS’ Real Gilligans and ESPN’s Dale Earnhardt biopic 3.

As impressive as those one-night stands were, it’s more provocative to suggest that this ratings convergence is a harbinger of things to come. For years, network broadcast’s share of prime-time viewing has marched relentlessly down—this season’s flat performance is lauded as heroic—while cable has crept continually up. (Sports, news and kids are separate stories, and good ones for cable.) It’s routine for a theoretical entity labeled “all of cable” to top the six broadcast nets. This crossing of trend lines has psychological heft but means bupkis in the business, since no advertiser buys “all of cable.” More to the point, can cable’s best-rated, fully distributed general entertainment networks truly go mano a mano with the big boys of network, and what does that mean for advertisers and media agencies?

Cable certainly talks a good game on convergence. “If the bottom third of broadcast is averaging a 2.0 rating on a demo, and we’re doing an occasional 1.5 with Law & Order and some specials are doing a 2.0, then clearly we are getting very, very close to broadcasters’ ratings on a national basis,” says Barry Fischer, Turner’s executive vp, market strategy. “We’re certainly able to substitute for the bottom third of broadcast, and we’re getting close to the middle third. There are a handful of hit shows on broadcast that are really good and people should buy them, but what is the value of the shows below, and at what price?”

“When you see so many shows in network delivering less than a 2 rating in demos, you think, ‘Hmmm, something’s different,'” adds Jack Wakshlag, Turner’s chief research officer. Five years ago, 58 percent of the broadcast schedule pulled less than a 4 demo rating, he points out; today, 77 percent is beneath that benchmark. He refutes the assumption that the large cable nets are cannibalizing one another, noting that “eight or nine of the top 10 are up in 18-49 and there have never been more networks down than up. TNT has had almost five years of continuous growth. You’d think fully distributed cable nets would feel the same effect as broadcasters, but they don’t.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with repeats—Turner’s made a mint off of ’em—but cable won’t truly narrow the ratings and money gap without a stream of successful series. That’s why everyone from Turner to TV Land is ramping up originals. The star here, HBO excepted, is FX. Its top episode of Nip/Tuck—a single airing, mind you, but just to make the point—pulled a 2.8 demo rating among adults 18–49, good enough to place it 75th among the season averages of some 190 reported prime-time network shows, including Malcolm in the Middle and Hope & Faith, not to mention every weblet series. The Shield, with a top 1.8, was on par with Reba and WWE Smackdown!

In terms of press coverage and public perception, FX’s “hit” shows are already competitive with broadcast. “Magazine headlines are worth dollars to us; awards are worth dollars,” says Bruce Lefkowitz, executive vp of sales at Fox Cable Entertainment Networks. “When you catch lightning in a bottle and become part of the culture, then factors like attentiveness levels, involvement and time viewing all become more relevant.”

Things get even more interesting when you consider that cable’s cumulative audiences for multiple runs of an episode or movie often generate network-like numbers and have become widely accepted among media buyers.

“We’ll sell a four-telecast cume where you get the premiere, a repeat immediately after and then two more prime airings that week,” explains Lefkowitz. “Buyers aren’t negotiating estimates show by show like in broadcast; they’re looking at a four-week flight with 250 rating points that generates x impressions in 18-49. It’s clearly an industry standard now.” That’s how Turner can say that its four-peat telecast of the movie Legally Blonde on TBS in March generated an unduplicated audience equal to a 5.5 rating in 18-49—big enough to rank as the seventh biggest show in prime time that week, ahead of Desperate Housewives and The Apprentice. “Different dynamics in the way cable is sold make that convergence point much, much stronger,” says Lefkowitz. “And broadcasters don’t want to talk about it.”

Well, actually, they do. “Our advertisers want to know which pod and pod position, they want to know the rating the next day and they want makegoods in the same time period,” notes Mike Shaw, ABC’s president of sales and marketing. “Cable mushes late-fringe repeats in their prime averages, and you don’t get an apples-to-apples comparison.”

Cumes are generally accepted, according to Jason Maltby, president/co-director of national TV at MindShare. “Understanding that you’ll get some duplication, you’re still reaching millions of unique eyeballs and that’s powerful,” he says. “It is a slippery slope, but we’ve adjusted our acceptance of it to reflect the realities of how people consume media today.”

Another medium that draws its share of eyeballs is syndication, which has long staked a claim as a broadcast network alternative. “Our numbers are obviously closer to network than cable’s,” observes Howard Levy, executive vp/ad sales at Buena Vista. “I don’t see [broadcast and cable] converging anytime soon. We have shows with great ratings and nights in the summer when we have the top-rated show.” Unlike cable, he says, “We’re a show-by-show medium, and I’ll put ours up against anyone’s.” Maltby agrees: “Put Seinfeld repeats in a network ranker, and it’s up in the top 20. And they get pricing that reflects that.”

Media analysts are not ready to anoint cable’s biggest as broadcast’s peers. “The Shield may occasionally get a 2 [demo] rating, but that doesn’t make it equivalent to the Big Four,” says Steve Sternberg, executive vp/director of audience analysis at Magna Global. “If ABC had Desperate Housewives surrounded by off-net stuff and junk reality like a cable network, it would also get a 2 rating.”

With the nets’ demo averaging from a 3.6 to a 4.0. and slipping and TNT, TBS and USA at 0.8 and inching up, is Big Cable within hailing distance? “It seems like it, but it’s not,” replies Sternberg. “It’s a tremendous distance from a 0.8 to a 3. Yes, the gap will narrow. If the nets are five times higher now, in five years they’ll be four times higher, and five years after that they’ll be three times higher. But it’ll never get to parity.” Indeed, with the top cable nets adding a few hundredths of a rating point each season, it will take years if not decades for their ratings to grow to the 2’s and 3’s—assuming there are no downturns.

“Maybe Turner can catch one of the networks,” Sternberg continues, “if it wants to spend the money. But there’s no ongoing stream of original programming to cable, and it’s hard to keep growing if 90 percent of your programming is acquired.” He says he believes local affiliated stations provide the networks with a built-in advantage, not to mention the 20 percent of homes that are broadcast-only.

“The four nets average nearly a 4.0 [in the demo], and cable averages a 0.2 across 65 networks, so please spare me,” says Shari Anne Brill, vp/director of programming at Carat. “It’ll be a long, long time before we can talk about parity. Yes, there are some cable hits, but they’re few and far between; often they’re limited runs. And many advertisers have problems with your Nip/Tucks, your Shields. What else are they airing? Off-net and repeats. Some upper-tier networks like TLC, Discovery and A&E had losses after they hit maturity.”

“What cable avoids mentioning is that all the hot shows are on network television,” says David Poltrack, CBS’ exec vp/research and planning. “After a couple years of high-buzz shows, cable struck out this season.” He scoffs when cable touts its handful of broadcast-worthy ratings: “What’s the big surprise? They’re at 80 percent penetration, and they say, ‘Gee, we can beat them occasionally.’ They should be beating us regularly if they had any good programming. Twenty percent isn’t that much of a handicap. And cable nets are getting their circulation from network TV programs. Law & Order represents 40 percent of TNT’s [prime-time] circulation in adults 25-54.”

“If you just look at one demo or one rating, cable can look pretty good,” says ABC’s Shaw. “But the minute you start overlaying that with what brand advertisers actually need—adults 18-49 with $75,000-plus income or A counties or top markets or 4-plus household size—people come right back to network TV because that’s what we deliver. Dig down to those qualifiers and you see that cable is no substitute for network prime. It’s a supplement. Take us out and you lose the opportunity to reach a customer.”

Buyers may be spending more money in cable, but they are dubious about the convergence argument. “As the gap continues to narrow between cable and network, the investment gap will narrow as well,” says John Rash, executive vp/national broadcast for Campbell Mithun. “Ironically, in an increasingly fragmented world, the networks, though diminished, are perhaps more important than ever as the last bastion of national reach.”

“Yeah, they’re getting closer, but not as close as you’d think,” says one veteran buyer. “There’s precious little cable if you look at all the top thousand episodes of the season, and even fewer if you throw out wrestling.”

The converging of network’s bottom and cable’s top in ratings only points out the distance between them pricewise, this buyer notes: “The networks would love to sell you a package of their low-rated shows. They’d give you an even better price, whereas cable won’t sell you only their high-rated stuff—and if they did, they’d charge an arm and a leg.” Top movies and specials, not to mention NFL football, “can command higher CPMs than broadcast prime time, and you often need to commit to a big package [of other shows] to get in.”

Cable’s buzz factor does matter to agencies and clients. “When you’re presenting a buy, you want to show something as a highlight, which can be hard with some cable nets,” this source acknowledges. “Original programming the client has heard of makes your life as a buyer that much easier in justifying some of the crazy price increases they want.”

“If anyone’s approaching parity, it will be more about broadcast declines than cable gains,” says MindShare’s Maltby. Even cable’s jumbo-sized cumes “don’t necessarily help them get to parity on a CPM,” he says. “They think parity [in ratings] means being at network-level CPMs, but supply and demand says it’s network coming down closer to cable.” That has never happened—so far.

“There’s no denying the convergence. That’s been happening for years,” says the head of a media agency. “But pricing is a pure negotiation, and we don’t want to pay more than we have to. There are virtually no must-buys in cable; the advertiser certainly has the ability to walk away from the general entertainment networks. The Turner guys came in years ago making this argument: Since some cable was competitive with some network prime, we should pay prime prices. At the time, the CPM difference was about 40 percent. I said, ‘You seem to want me to pay 40 percent more and no thank you.’ Maybe someday they’ll refuse to sell us inventory for 40 percent less than broadcast, but it hasn’t happened here. Our research says there’s no difference between a 0.9 and a 0.6, and if you want me to pay more for that 0.9, you can take a hike.”

Eric Schmuckler is a contributing writer to Mediaweek.