Networks sell upscale audiences

Execs try pushing positive without being elitist

There’s an old joke that cable networks arguing over whose ratings are higher is like midgets debating who’s taller. Increasingly, though, the talking points employed to woo advertisers have evolved from height to how much money said little people have stuffed in their pockets.

Every month brings press releases from cablers detailing how fabulously they’re doing, and the pronouncements trotted out for this year’s truncated upfront ad sales have refined the furious spin –accentuating the positive in ever-more-creative ways.

Bravo, for example, issued data regarding how intently viewers watch it (or “program engagement”) and bills itself as the most affluent of basic-cable channels, indexing the highest among households that earn $125,000 or more. This is code for the NBC-owned net’s unspoken slogan, “We cater to women and well-off gay men who enjoy design and cooking shows.”

Newly acquired sibling Oxygen picked up a similar theme, dubbing its audience “Generation O,” aimed at “trenders, spenders and recommenders.” Smithsonian Networks, meanwhile, recently retained a new ad-sales firm, stressing that its museum-backed name will provide “an excellent environment for advertisers.”

Look closer, though, and the raw numbers for many of these more affluent and better-educated nets (BBC America, the Golf Channel, etc.) are often relatively small — though on the plus side, that makes it much easier to register impressive-sounding viewership growth. (If you have two viewers, adding a third means your ratings “soared” 50%.)

Out of necessity, then, cable and even broadcasters will gradually turn from boasting about how many people are watching to the attributes of who’s watching — in essence saying, “My audience can beat up (or more precisely, outspend) their audience.”

During the past few years, networks have highlighted data regarding upscale viewers and psychographics — that the audience for NBC’s “The Office,” say, ranks above most primetime fare. Indeed, the network specifically cited an upscale skew as inspiration to renew “Lipstick Jungle” despite its otherwise-mediocre ratings.

Yet amid harsh economic times, these claims are not only of growing competitive importance but also become awkward — setting up an “Us vs. them” mentality while trying not to appear elitist. This delicate balancing act was evident listening to Wall Street Journal representatives deliver their spiel for WSJ, a new lifestyle magazine meant to capitalize on the Journal’s well-heeled subscriber base.

“Luxury has gone from elitist to mass-market,” said WSJ editor Tina Gaudoin, explaining how the at-first quarterly magazine would “speak to the ultra-affluent” with advice on such vexing problems as how to commission artwork or purchase a Rolls-Royce.

Despite promising that WSJ would deliver “an intimate view of the world of wealth,” Gaudoin insisted the magazine would address a wider audience than just the super-rich. “We aim, actually, to be inclusive,” she said. (In a poorly timed footnote, Journal managing editor Marcus Brauchli — who participated in the West Coast road show I attended — resigned four days later.)

With all due respect, though, commissioning artwork doesn’t really sound “inclusive” in a period of record home foreclosures and flighty financial markets. The middle class aspires to advancement and luxury, but their priorities tend to refocus when fretting about mortgage payments and U.S. gas prices topping $4 a gallon.

Nevertheless, perusing cable releases forced to crow about a few hundred thousand viewers — impressive totals if you’re talking concert attendance, but paltry compared with “American Idol” or “Grey’s Anatomy” — a shift in the conversation to the perceived quality of who’s tuning in becomes inevitable. The possible sticking point is that the historic emphasis on younger demographics doesn’t always mesh with these new criteria, bringing to mind CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ observation that the only “upscale” 18-to-34-year-olds he can think of are his grown children.

By the way, lest those responsible for WSJ feel too haughty, the median income level for Variety subscribers more than doubles the estimated $300,000 household tally of the Journal, which admittedly derives its info from a considerably larger universe.

So WSJ can put that in its “upscale,” platinum-encrusted pipe and smoke it. As for those of you reading the paper free online, your patronage is welcome, but let’s get cracking. Times are tough, and a lot of us here have kids to feed, mortgages to pay and gas tanks to fill.

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