Cable aud’s now bigger than b’cast

Turner's Wakshlag expects cable to clobber nets in sweeps

NEW YORK — When the curtain rings down on the official 2003-04 season next week, the cable industry will reach a watershed: For the first time in history, advertiser-supported cable will harvest more viewers, on average, than the seven broadcast networks.

That’s the word from Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, whose analysis of the Nielsen data shows that ad-supported cable will wind up with an 49.8 share of TV viewers, compared to a 47.3 share for the seven broadcast webs (including Pax).

Even Wakshlag’s data affirm that the seven broadcasters pocket 71% of the primetime ad dollars flowing into the marketplace, compared to only 29% for cable as a category.

But with cable’s victory in 2003-04, Wakshlag said advertisers have already begun to more aggressively seek out mass-circulation general-entertainment cable networks like TNT, USA, TBS and Lifetime as lower-cost surrogates to the big broadcasters.

Suitable to substitute

“Substitutability” of cable for broadcast could become the buzzword for the next few years, he said, as Madison Avenue gets fed up with paying higher rates to the broadcasters for lower ratings every year.

Tim Brooks, senior VP of research for Lifetime, said cable networks that are pulling in more viewers in 2003-04 than a year ago “are already writing business in the upfront marketplace” before the broadcasters have even finished their fall-schedule presentations to the ad community. These nets include TNT, USA and TBS, and they’re pocketing “mid-single-digit to upper-single-digit increases,” according to Brooks.

If growing ratings translate into more ad dollars flowing to cable, he continued, the 2003-04 season “could become the tipping point that leads to a memorable cable upfront.”

Within the season-to-date numbers, Wakshlag said ad-supported cable is also on track to clobber the seven broadcasters in shares for the May sweep, which would also be a first.

Viewing hours up

The Turner report also revealed that people are watching more TV, both broadcast and cable, than ever. In 2003-04 to date, the average household watched 57 hours of TV per week compared to only 52.6 hours during the 1998-99 season and 52.8 hours per week in 1993-94.

These increases flow across all demographic categories, even men 18-34, who may be watching fewer hours during primetime but are making up for it in other dayparts, particularly 1-6 a.m. and 11 p.m.-1 a.m.