Basic cable nets give themselves promotion

When it comes to marketing, basic cable networks are acting more and more like their broadcast counterparts.

Cablers, egged on by ratings gains at the expense of broadcast networks, have marshaled steadily increasing sums to win viewers. And while they still don’t match the major webs dollar for dollar, niche cable networks have scored gains with cohesive identity programs that broadcasters find hard to match.

Brand vs. budget

“They have bigger budgets and we have bigger brands, and so the whole approach to marketing is different,” said Rich Cronin, senior VP-general manager of MTV Networks’ Nick at Nite.

Cable networks will spend $627 million on advertising, marketing and promotion this year, a 13.4% gain from 1994 and more than twice the amount spent just four years ago, according to estimates from Paul Kagan Associates. For 1996, Kagan projects spending will grow another 12%, to $703 million, due largely to improved cash flow that results from stronger distribution and improved ratings.

Success begets spots

“The largest cable networks are getting larger, and with the cash flow hit, they’re doing more in the way of national campaigns,” said Bill Marchetti, a Kagan analyst, who says on average, cablers spend 10.4% of their net revenues on marketing.

For some of the largest cable networks, spending growth has tracked much higher. The Discovery Channel spent $19.2 million on paid media in 1994, an astounding 81% increase, and second only to ESPN. For the first half of 1995, it hiked budgets 35%, to $12.6 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting, a monitoring service.

The figures don’t include the cable networks’ use of their own airtime for promotion – usually about 20% to 25% of commercial inventory, a percentage comparable to broadcast webs during primetime. Nor do they include spending by pay cablers like HBO, which coughs up nearly $100 million alone (evenly split between advertising and promotions) largely because they depend wholly on subscription revenues.

But the marketing activity from basic channels reflects the newfound realization that significant ratings gains are now achievable. That fact has never been more in evidence than in recent weeks, when Lifetime’s Jessica Savitch biopic scored a 7.9 rating and MTV’s Video Music Awards earned a 6.4, admittedly against weak late-summer competition.

“We are playing in an increasingly competitive marketplace,” said Valerie Grady, VP-consumer marketing at Discovery. “There was a time when (cable) networks might have defined their competitive set more narrowly,” just to other cablers.

That’s no longer true. But each network approaches marketing differently. For instance, TBS and USA, which program everything from “Murder, She Wrote” reruns to tennis, adopt a broadcast-style strategy, eschewing brand-image advertising in favor of appointment ads that encourage viewers to watch specific shows.

MTV, Nickelodeon and Discovery, with more focused programming and viewers, more often opt for generic ads that promote their networks as a whole. Nick also targets a core audience with sponsorship opportunities such as its Universal Studios theme-park attraction.

Discovery has branded its entire promotion program around the “explore your world” mantra, while Lifetime has lately been explicitly calling itself “television for women.” MTV earlier this year began its first TV campaign in eight years, exporting its on-air Jimmy the Cabdriver character to paid media. And Nickelodeon’s Nick at Nite has managed to create a hip aura around moldy reruns, largely through packaging shows like “Bewitched” in a way that appeals to baby boomers and their kids.

Even the broadcast networks have gotten into the niche-building act, attempting to brand blocks of compatible programming such as ABC’s Friday-night “TGIF” family shows and NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursdays.

“When we do advertising, it’s primarily about building brand image, and secondarily about tuning in a specific show,” said Nick’s Cronin. “We couldn’t have a tune-in spot if it didn’t help to build our brand.”

Others feel differently about their promotion plans. “Most all of it is aimed at promoting events, which in turn helps to brand the network,” said Judy Fearing, senior VP, consumer marketing at ESPN.

Should cable nets be spending even more, in the hope of closing the gap with their broadcast brethren? After all, Kagan figures show ESPN is worth nearly as much as its majority owner, ABC, in financial terms.

“I don’t think there’s a marketer in the world who would tell you they don’t think there’s a benefit to having more advertising spending,” said Fearing, a former exec at Nabisco and Pepsi.

And as usual, it’s difficult to isolate the impact of paid advertising on ratings. But some observers aren’t sure how much the added promotion pays off.

“Other than having special programming, there’s only so much you can do to promote yourself to a large audience,” said Larry Cole, U.S. media director at Ogilvy & Mather. “Basically, the audience is built on viewer attraction to the program content.”

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