Analysis: Media Forecast 2010

It would be an interesting, albeit purely academic exercise to imagine how the advertising industry would look right now if we hadn’t been hit with the biggest economic downturn since the 1930s. Perhaps instead of hastening the migration of ads from traditional media to the Internet, the Great Recession actually slowed things down. Imagine if marketers, media firms and advertising agencies hadn’t been in such a cautious frame of mind over the past year or so and unleashed breakthrough ideas that moved us further along on the continuum than we are today. We’ll never know because the ad industry’s running narrative, like most other industries, got hijacked by the economy.

The story now is a continued migration to new media but complicated by what looks to be a fragile economic recovery. Thus, the bottom line looms large over the industry in 2010. In general, it is projected to be a better year than the previous one, but not by much, at least here in the U.S. Still, everyone’s up for some good news at this point. At least you can count on the Winter Olympics and the congressional races for a bit of relief.

As with previous years, we expect that the action will be on the margins. The bulk of media dollars still changes hands the old-fashioned way. The Internet may claim more ad dollars in Great Britain right now, but in the U.S. it’s still not even close. That will no doubt change but not over the next year.

A more likely scenario is that some concepts will undergo a stress test. For instance, in a media landscape with hundreds of channels, what is the value of a broadcast network? What role does salesmanship play in a business as data driven as marketing is today? Does it make sense for magazine and newspaper publishers to continue to give away their content if Web ad revenues still are a fraction of those derived from print? Do those publishers have any choice?

If history is any guide, things won’t play out the way you might guess. Disruptive technologies are, by definition, impossible to predict and immensely powerful for that reason. Nevertheless, here are our best guesses of where things are going, barring any unforeseen and inevitable new developments. —The Editors


FORECAST 2010: CABLE TV

By Anthony Crupi

With apologies to Thomas Friedman, the world may well be flat, but it’s also an inclined plane. Substitute the rigors of economics for physics and 2009 was a year in which the proverbial (and euphemistic) excrement ran downhill at an unnerving rate, so much so that anyone who happened to be camped out at the lower latitudes didn’t exactly come out smelling like a rose.

As it happens, ad-supported cable enjoys an enviable perch near the vertical; as such, the top-tier networks were able to get through the year relatively unsoiled. Along with record ratings and a resilient ad sales marketplace, signs that the tidal murk of recession is beginning to recede have many observers anticipating an even stronger 2010.

One ad sales chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that the last dark cloud on the cable horizon has been dispelled by recent consumer behavior. “We’ve been holding our breath, but it looks like the holidays were a success,” the executive says. “Any momentum we had going into next year would have been wiped out if Christmas had been [lousy].” Holiday retail spending was up 2.3 percent during the week of the 25th, while year-over-year activity for the peak November-December period improved 3.6 percent, per SpendingPulse, a service from MasterCard Advisors.

The health of the scatter market is an area of concern for the cable nets, which were forced to hold onto a sizable chunk of inventory in the 2009-10 upfront. Per the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, dollar volume in the summer bazaar was down 13 percent to $6.6 billion, a decline that reflected the irresistible force-meets-immovable-object dynamic of the marketplace.

At the time, ad sales bosses characterized the upfront pullback as a calculated risk; at this juncture, some network execs say they should have held onto even more inventory, such has been the strength of scatter. In any event, leaving money on the table has been a boon to high-end cable nets, which saw fourth-quarter scatter pricing coming in at 20 percent over upfront levels.

Those premiums should continue to roll in throughout Q1, as channels such as USA Network, TNT and FX welcome back their popular original scripted series. First-quarter prime-time inventory is already tightening, as advertisers look to align themselves with some consistent reach vehicles.

“It’s an unprecedented situation in that Q1 cancellations were minimal,” says one ad sales boss. “Nobody took options, and while that made me breathe a little easier back in November, now I’m thinking it would have been nice to have some of that [inventory] to resell at an even higher CPM.”

Networks that specialize in unscripted fare may be less certain about what’s around the corner. “Cable’s higher inventory levels encourage buyers to wait for the best deals, resulting in less visibility,” says Oppenheimer analyst Jason Helfstein.

Cable’s ratings story continues to cast a spell, and 2009 marked the ninth straight victory over the broadcast nets. By year’s end, cable accounted for 60.4 percent of the overall TV household share, while its standing among viewers 18-49 was nearly twice that of the big four (50.5 to 27.1).

That said, aggregate ratings growth is expected to taper off, commensurate with penetration. Some 20 cable nets (including TBS, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and USA) have surpassed the 100-million sub mark, reaching 87 percent of the nation’s 114.9 million TV households.

If saturation has a dampening effect on dynamic ratings growth, that’s offset by the concomitant revenue gains. Per SNL Kagan data, ad-supported cable nets in 2010 will haul in $27.8 billion in sub fees, up 9.6 percent from the prior-year period.

Naturally, cable ad sales dollars are expected to rise in the new year, although analysts are divided on the rate of improvement. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers projections, spending on network cable in 2010 will grow 3.6 percent to $20.2 billion, while SNL Kagan projects greater year-on-year growth, calling for a 5.6 percent rise, to $18.2 billion.

Already there are indications that 2009 will be remembered as an aberration, says Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan. “It’s likely to be just a blip in the long-term growth of an industry that has increased revenue at a CAGR of 12.6 percent over the past decade,” Baine says. “Going forward, we expect the margins won’t be crushed like they have in other media.”

While cable continues to steal share from broadcast, that pattern isn’t reflected in the cost of a spot. Per Kagan, the average cable CPM grew just 2.1 percent in 2008, down from a 2.7 percent increase in the two previous years. (On an average CPM basis, prime-time inventory on cable costs about one-third as much as broadcast.)

The two worlds are about to get much cozier, as Comcast awaits regulatory approval of its $30 billion merger with NBC Universal. The inquest is expected to carry on for the better part of a year. For many, a Comcast-owned NBC marks the zero hour for the broadcast model, which lies well south on the inclined plane from cable and its dual revenue stream.

As Comcast suits up for battle, CEO Brain Roberts has suggested that the flagship network is safe. The day the deal was announced, Roberts said the operator is “committed to trying to see ways to make [NBC] successful,” adding that “broadcast television is an important part of the fabric of America.”

But make no mistake: Roberts is a cable guy, through and through. “The cable programming channels are really the best part of the business,” Roberts said. “NBC and Universal are storied assets…but it comes down to the cable channels.”


FORECAST 2010: PRINT MEDIA

By Lucia Moses

Print publishers are bracing themselves for another tough year in 2010.
Advertising won’t decline as much as it did in 2009, when the luxury category, the lifeblood of many titles, cut back sharply, and for many large advertisers, magazines became a noncore buy.

But the medium will continue to contract as advertisers shift their budgets from traditional to more measurable, digital media. U.S. magazines’ share of the ad pie will slip to 11 percent in 2010 from 11.8 percent the year before as magazines’ projected ad growth, at negative 6.2 percent, trails total U.S. media growth of 0.2 percent, according to Magna Global’s December forecast.

“I’m not naïve,” says Mark Ford, president and group publisher of Time Inc.’s News Group, comprising Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, who predicts flat ad revenue for the year ahead. “It’s going to be slow, steady growth. And the whole picture is not going to improve until the economy improves.”

And with fewer dollars floating around, observers predict more magazines will fold. The entertainment, shelter and business categories are seen as particularly vulnerable either because they’re crowded or their endemic ad base is struggling.

While magazines’ problem is more of an advertising than a readership one, negativity surrounding the medium is emboldening clients to push for lower pricing, buyers say. Says one, on condition of anonymity: “They think magazines are dying, so why should they pay an increase?”

Titles that stay in business will try to woo advertisers with integrated or high-impact ads. To that end, Ford’s group, for one, is finalizing partnerships to create TV extensions for Time, Fortune and SI.

“Content integration will continue to be important,” says George Janson, managing partner, director of print, GroupM. “We’ll see more impact units, with advertisers trying to break through the clutter. I think magazines will be a lot more accommodating.”

While their readership has been stable, magazines have been challenged to monetize it in the form of price increases. To the extent circulation is based on ad support and that newsstand sales reflect consumers’ willingness to part with their money, publishers are likely to continue to reduce rate base and frequency.

“2010 is going to be a cautious year,” says David Leckey, executive vp, consumer marketing at American Media Inc. and vice chairman of the Audit Bureau of Circulations. “By and large, people might look at reduction in circulation versus price increases.”

Still, many magazines can count on readers to continue picking them up for their visually rich reading experience. The same can’t be said for newspapers.

Their core daily news offering is easily replaced by free content online, while younger readers’ preference for the Web will challenge newspapers’ ability to find new readers. On the ad front, national papers stand to bounce back when financial advertising recovers, while local newspapers will remain an easy target for cuts by large advertisers. Magna calls for U.S. newspaper advertising to decline 9.2 percent to $23.4 billion following a 25.7 percent drop in 2009, its share slipping to 17.6 percent from 19.6 percent.