Despite gains, few cable shows rate as equals

Given the current fascination with Snow White — including two re-imagined movies and the ABC series “Once Upon a Time” — the major TV networks can draw some comfort from their continuing status.

Not the fairest of them all, certainly, but still the biggest, which is plenty charming to the princes of Madison Ave.

That’s easy to forget, what with all the cultural oxygen programs such as “Mad Men” or “Girls” suck up. In a crowded, competitive world, it’s nice to be constantly talked about, even when the chatter and analysis aren’t always flattering.

Still, around this time of year — as networks and advertisers circle each other, wondering who’ll blink in the annual upfront ad sales bonanza — it’s legitimate to note that the old-guard broadcasters, even in their diluted state, generally eclipse the relative whippersnappers yapping at their heels.

“I’m talking about the difference in scale, and it’s staggering,” said Fox Networks Group Entertainment chairman Peter Rice during his net’s upfront presentation, referring to Fox’s social-media clout compared with cable competitors.

Rice’s is a somewhat amorphous, hyperbolic claim (hey, all’s fair in love and sales), and discussing network ratings in a vacuum has become a dated concept. One broadcaster or another often trails cable, whether it’s one of ESPN’s prime sporting events or even scripted programs like AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” While the major networks like to speak of fourth place as if it’s the end of the world, on odd nights, NBC has found itself sixth or seventh, depending on what cable has to offer.

Nevertheless, a chasm does persist, which would no doubt surprise many casual observers, based on the leveling impact of shifting viewing habits and new technology. After all, many watch shows without even knowing what channel they’re on, letting their DVR do the heavy lifting.

The media also tend to let perception get ahead of reality, particularly if there’s a coy phrase involved — like America being “mad for ‘Mad Men,’?” as some scribes enthused when its season premiere opened to a little more than 1% of the U.S. population.

So it’s worth noting, even by measures that seemingly favor prestige cable fare, that network offerings regularly surpass them.

TiVo, for example, provided a list of its Top 50 series in “season passes,” or those programs where a viewer asks its DVR to record every new episode. And while there has been an uptick on Sundays thanks to shows like “The Killing” and “Game of Thrones,” one has to scroll down to No. 24 before hitting a cable program (USA’s “Burn Notice”) and another 10 spots to find critical darling “Mad Men.”

In all, cable titles account for just six entries on that roster, even among the presumably tech-savvy types able to program TiVo and passionate enough to book a steady date with TV shows. The top 10, meanwhile, includes usual suspects like “Modern Family,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “American Idol.”

As for estimates that aggregated cable upfront ad spending (roughly $9.8 billion) is surpassing broadcast (about $9.5 billion) for the coming season, remember that the former incorporates dozens of channels, compared with only a handful for the latter — not exactly a fair fight.

That’s not to say there isn’t ample bravado in networks insisting how well positioned they are for the future. As technology comes closer each year to offering more ways to sidestep ads — whatever happens to Dish’s Auto Hop ad-skipping tool — broadcasters’ mass appeal advantage is eroded. Yes, “the pipes still work,” as then-NBC chief Jeff Zucker said after the 2010 Olympics, but other than such marquee live events, they sputter to life less frequently.

In addition, the billions ESPN pockets in subscriber fees and HBO’s lucrative pay model have become cause for bottom-line envy, fueling their ability to acquire or commission expensive programming, while broadcasters’ have retrenched with the heightened reliance on cheaper reality shows.

For now, though, the middle-aged Big Three networks and 25-year-old cousin Fox still occupy prime seats at the table, despite what at times appears to be a deck stacked against them.

Granted, even this snapshot doesn’t fully capture the business’s complexities. But for network execs feeling underappreciated by those who sound eager to write old-media obituaries, consider it an affirmation from the magic mirror.

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