Broadcast vs. Cable TV

Broadcast vs. Cable TV

Originally posted at

I saw that ZenithOptimedia estimates that broadcast network ad spending will be flat this year, while cable networks total spend will be up about 10 percent to $18 billion.  It‘s about time this happened.

Broadcast networks have been feeding us a steady diet of reality shows, spinoffs, and clones for many years.  How many versions of “Law and Order” do we need?  How many versions of “CSI” do we need?  How often can we watch amateurs dancing…or singing, before they become redundant?  And, of course, we are getting more and more game shows to watch in prime.

Yes, the broadcast networks still have the blockbuster programs that attract huge audiences.  We still watch the Super Bowl and the World Series on broadcast networks, for now.  But even compelling sports programming like the Olympics, and the NCAA men’s basketball championships, big ratings producers, are being spread out across a variety of cable networks in addition to the coverage on the host broadcast networks.  This is a great awareness and trial opportunity for secondary cable networks which carry the events.  We watch the Academy Awards and the Grammy Awards on broadcast networks, which deliver a strong audience spike, but does it provide a halo to their standard primetime fare?

The strongest, most compelling programming in prime has all been on cable.  Not launched by an ad supported network, but the first time Tony Soprano showed up on our televisions, this was seismic.  This multi-Emmy award winning program was like nothing we had seen before.  This was appointment viewing that owned Sunday night, the #1 night.  HBO also brought us “Sex and the City”, a polar opposite to “The Sopranos” in terms of content but no less riveting to its audience.  It showed this demo how to dress, where to eat, what to drink, etc.  That’s pretty powerful for a television show.  Nothing on the broadcast networks is doing that.  Glee is selling a lot of music, but is having less of an overall effect on a generation of women.

The list of breakout shows on cable continues to get longer.  “Mad Men” presents a period piece that we cannot get enough of.  We wait through delays in production and welcome it on to our various screens whenever a new season begins.  This multi-Emmy award winning show has catapulted AMC into our evoked set of networks.  AMC Networks is now the name of Cablevision’s publicly owned programming spinoff.  This may not have happened with the success of “Mad Men”.  We are also seeing audiences built around “The Closer” and “Burn Notice” and many more prime time shows.

It looks like all the broadcast networks are willing to bring us is safe, franchise extending shows, or clones of ones that have been successful on one of their rivals.  The creative, risk taking entries are being left to cable.

When competing in a 500+ channel universe, you cannot be content to let your niche competitors introduce new brands, while you rely on safer, more expected entries.  So, it’s no surprise that the ad spending has finally tipped in the favor of cable.  This dynamic will probably continue indefinitely, given the current creative environment.

About Steve Yanovsky

Steve is a marketing and marcom consultant for Customer Focused Solutions specializing in media, entertainment and online advertising organizations. In addition, he is an Adjunct Professor at NYU teaching a course in Competitive Marketing Strategy. You can reach Steve at


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