What Cable Networks Can Teach Us About News Branding

By Graeme Newell 

How will local TV branding change in the coming years? If you want to get a good look at where we’re headed, the national cable business can teach us a few things. National cable channels like Discovery, TBS, Lifetime and CNN have been through major marketing changes that broadcasting has yet to face. In the late 90s cable TV went through a series of hard-fought battles that left scores of channels dead by the road. Cable marketers struggled to deal with two major marketing roadblocks that would reshape the business: withering competition and the challenges of brand expansion.

Today, there are so many cable channels littering each of the major genres that a two rating is considered a superstar success on even the biggest channels. You want women’s programming? There are no less than 37 channels that cater to women’s interests. Cable channels must scratch and claw for every tenth of a point. Any cable channel that didn’t quickly establish a constantly evolving customer-based branding strategy simply died. It quickly became evident that good programming could get viewers to sample, but carefully crafted branding was the only way to keep them coming back.

Think it’s tough competing against four or five other stations in the local news category? Just imagine how tough it is for the TV Azteca or The Word Network to compete on digital cable channels 292 and 349? Almost no one is going to surf by and happen to sample the programming.


Local TV has yet to experience this kind of intense competition, but web streaming, VOD, and the ever-expanding roster of digital channels mean this same challenge will be on broadcasting’s doorstep soon. Despite all its woes, local TV is still a license to print money with incredible margins. You can still do a delightfully mediocre job of marketing your local station and still make a boatload of cash.

I do a lot of work with both cable and broadcast TV, and I find that each starts the branding process from radically different places. Cable marketers have learned the hard way that the battle is won through incredibly strategic marketing and a brand identity that seamlessly integrates that marketing into every pore of the operation. In most broadcast TV stations, the marketing and product camps are still miles apart. Broadcast TV starts with its own personal vision of a product, then builds in the marketing later. Cable programmers bake the marketing right into the product from the get go.

Both cable and broadcast have so much in common. Both want to attract viewing. Both have control of their programming specifics. Both are focused on a narrow niche audience. The History Channel buys and creates shows that appeal to history buffs. Local news handcrafts community stories targeted at fickle news viewers.

The difference between the cable TV mindset and the local TV mindset shows up most prominently in the very first question I ask – what is your brand position? Ask a broadcast manager this question and they will describe their product priorities. For example, “Our news is all about breaking news, in-depth weather coverage and local investigations.”

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Graeme Newell is a broadcast and web marketing specialist who serves as the president and founder of 602 communications. You can reach Graeme at gnewell@602commu nications.com.