Death By a Thousand Cuts

CAB report shows cable slowly slicing away at broadcast hegemony

With just two weeks to go before the broadcast networks take the wraps off their 2011-12 programming slates, a cable trade association is making a late push for the hearts and minds of media buyers.

On Monday, the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau issued a report to advertisers and agencies designed to demonstrate the wealth of programming options available on non-broadcast channels. Crunching the numbers for March 2011, the CAB determined that cable networks boasted 68 percent of all prime time GRPs for the 18-49 demo and 84 percent of all total-day ratings.

As one might expect, cable leads in a number of high-impact genres, including kids, sports, movies and comedy. Having long ago ceded the field to the likes of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, broadcast now airs the bare minimum of kids’ programming mandated by the FCC. As such, cable in March captured 98 percent of all kids’ GRPs.

According to the CAB, cable seized 80 percent of the sports gross ratings points and 89 percent of all comedy ratings. That same month, broadcast claimed just 13 percent of all movie/feature film ratings.

The areas in which broadcast still enjoys the upper hand are more than a little shopworn. The networks dominate the moribund soap opera genre, garnering 80 percent of ratings there, while maintaining an edge in variety (65 percent).

That said, cable’s advantage is largely a function of the sheer number of channels in operation. Nielsen measures ratings for around 75 ad-supported cable channels; in the standard primetime hours of 8-11 p.m. that adds up to approximately 6,750 hours of prime time programming in a 30-day span.

In comparison, the five broadcast nets program around 360 hours of prime time fare every month. Toss Univision and Telemundo into the mix, and you’re still only looking at around 540 hours.

Despite cable’s cumulative impact on the TV landscape, broadcast remains the only truly viable outlet for reaching the masses. In the same period covered by the CAB study, the networks delivered 94 of the top 100 prime time programs among viewers 18-49.

“We wanted to furnish the 15,000-foot view of the heights that ad-supported cable occupies,” said CAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham. “U.S. consumers have put cable at a level above all others.”

There is literal truth to this assessment. According to Nielsen live-plus-same day ratings data, the average U.S. household spent nearly one-third of its waking hours watching cable TV.

Barclays Capital analyst Anthony DiClemente recently projected that cable will achieve volume parity with the broadcasters in the 2011-12 upfront. DiClemente said the networks are likely to increase their upfront commitments by 7.5 percent year-over-year to $9.23 billion, beating the previous high-water mark of $8.8 billion set in the 2008-09 bazaar.

On the other side of the ledger, the ad-supported cable channels are expected to boost their total take by 15.3 percent, landing around $9.23 billion in business.

One area in which broadcast remains well ahead of its upstart competition: pricing. The Big Four nets command an average prime time CPM that is three times that of a top-tier cable network.