CAB: Cable Sales Top $20.5 Billion

Cost efficiencies, top-tier sports franchises and a wealth of buzz-worthy original series helped U.S. cable networks amass a record ad sales haul in 2010.

After having crunched the numbers for all ad-supported cable nets, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau announced that national ad sales tallied up to $20.5 billion, up 10 percent, or $1.8 billion, versus the previous year’s $18.7 billion.

During a recession-wracked 2009, national ad sales inched ahead a mere 2 percent ($330 million).

Cable’s strong performance was a function of high-profile breakouts such as MTV’s Jersey Shore, AMC’s The Walking Dead, TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles and USA Network’s Covert Affairs. ESPN, History and FX also helped lead the charge.

While cable is flexing its muscles heading into the 2011-12 upfront bazaar, the industry as a whole still lags broadcast on price. Estimates place the average cost of a 30-second spot in broadcast prime at around $130,000; on the whole, cable nets command an average rate of around $45,000. (Ratings leaders and networks with more aggressive pricing packages are much closer to bridging that 3-to-1 shortfall.)

Local cable enjoyed an even sharper rise last year, as an improving auto and retail landscape added to the dollars brought in by political campaigns. Per the CAB, local sales in 2010 grew 20 percent to $6.6 billion.

All told, the cable industry improved 12 percent from 2009, with national and local ad sales adding up to some $27.1 billion.

“In a 2010 where marketers were literally trying to advertise their way out of a recession, the fact that they turned to cable in droves…speaks volumes,” said CAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham, who added that TV in those 12 months “was called on to do more than ever.”

Last year marked the 10th consecutive season in which cable nets trumped broadcast in prime time. According to Nielsen data, ad-supported cable nets combined for a 51.0 share among viewers 18-49, versus the Big Four’s 27.4.

Although the CAB does not calculate sales data for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, PricewaterhouseCoopers pegged broadcast’s overall take at $15.7 billion, up 1 percent from 2009. PwC’s $20.2 billion cable estimate is slightly smaller than the figure arrived at by the CAB.

With last year’s numbers in hand, cable has now racked up nine consecutive years of ad sales growth. Since 2001, when the nets took in $11.8 billion in ad sales revenue, the total dollar amount has increased by 74 percent.