In a year-end press briefing at Gotham’s Time Warner Center, Turner’s chief research officer Jack Wakshlag laid out a statistical rundown of the television season that held lots of good news for the cable biz and some very bad news for the broadcast nets.
Although he was particularly promoting inhouse successes — pointing out that TNT’s “The Closer” is still the No. 1 ad-supported-cable series of all time, TBS’ “House of Payne” is the No. 1 scripted series on all of TV for African-Americans, and reminding journos that CNN topped both its cable and network competish on Election night — Wakshlag was most emphatic about the bigger cable-vs.-broadcast picture.
Referring to Nielsen numbers current as of Sunday, he noted that 37 ad-supported cablers (including five of the top 10) scored their best primetime demo numbers ever in 2008. Ad-supported cable in general notched a 9% increase, while the big four broadcasters have seen an 11% drop compared with ’07.
Wakshlag sounded an especially alarming note for the nets with regard to the Feb. 17 transition to digital. Characterizing it as “a once-in-a-lifetime event and a significant challenge” to their future, he pointed out that “unready” television sets account for 12.7% of broadcast viewing (14.5% in 18-34s), and that network viewership plummets from 100% to 45% among viewers who convert to cable.
With that in mind, he concluded, “If you’re a TV station, you know you’re worried about it; if you’re an advertiser, whatever money you spent on these networks… some of it ain’t gonna be there.”
Wakshlag termed NBC’s decision to move Jay Leno to primetime a “validation” for TNT’s decision to get into the original-programming business as well as an acknowledgment by the networks of cold hard reality. “You’ve got a broken financial model,” he said. Alluding to the product-integration possibilities of a show like Leno’s, he continued, “Broadcast networks can’t continue to rely only on advertising anymore when it costs them $3 million an hour just to make the show.”