NBC the best at cultivating rich

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Good news is hard to find with this year's threadbare advertising pockets and troubled TV upfront season, but the fact remains that some folks still have money: viewers.

In an otherwise lackluster programming landscape, the wealthy-viewer demographic segment emerges as a key strategy in luring advertisers. Catering to upscale consumers also may be the key to developing future revenue streams from interactive and enhanced TV, since well-heeled viewers are typically the earliest adopters of such technology.

"The wealthiest viewers gravitate toward new technologies," says Art Tatnell, senior VP-director of media information and technology at Cordiant Communications Group's Bates USA, New York. "And as more TVs are hooked up to devices from DVD players to computers and interactive programming boxes, knowing what wealthy viewers are watching is becoming even more important than before."

General Electric Co.'s NBC has paved the widest path to wealthy viewers. In the recently completed upfront, NBC pulled in $1.95 billion in sales-tops for all broadcast networks. While this mark was difficult at best to achieve, NBC's profile among upscale viewers was a big part of its success.

NBC repeatedly attracts the wealthiest viewers in network TV, thanks to its strong Thursday prime-time lineup. The average household income of NBC prime-time viewers is $51,723, according to WPP Group's Media Edge, New York, and Nielsen Media Research-well above other networks.

News Corp.'s Fox comes in second at $48,377, moving up from third place last year, due in part to its new show, "Boston Public." Walt Disney Co.'s ABC comes in third place, closely followed by Viacom's CBS.

`WEST WING' BOOSTS NBC

NBC improved by getting eight of the top 10 shows with the highest average household income; last year it had seven of the top 10. "The West Wing" drew the wealthiest viewers, with an average household income of $57,060. Last year's winner was Fox's "Ally McBeal," which pulled in households with an average income of $54,518.

For media buyers, another key measurement for networks is comparing the highest-rated shows against households with $75,000 or more in income. Here CBS' "Survivor 2" is the tops with a 13.5 Nielsen rating. Then comes a string of NBC offerings: "E.R." is next at 12.6; then "The West Wing" at 12.3; "Law & Order" at 10.7; and "Friends" at 10.1.

Increasingly, media buyers and advertisers are asking their agencies for deeper audience TV data, including information linking household income with ratings.

"Advertisers want to see beyond the top-line demographics. We just don't buy broad stuff on NBC," says Roy Rothstein, VP-director of national broadcast research for Zenith Media Services, New York, which is owned by Cordiant and Publicis Groupe.

Networks typically tout higher household income for their shows because those viewers usually are hard-to-target, light TV viewers. A network can charge premium prices for those shows, but it's also important to have high-rated shows.

"For a broadcast network to have an upscale audience is good, but having top-rated shows is more important," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-audience research for Horizon Media, a New York-based media buyer. "You need eyeballs."

Content alone doesn't guarantee high-income viewers. A show's positioning in the weekly lineup plays a huge role in holding onto wealthy viewers. In the season just ended, "Frasier," at $52,972, dropped to 14th place in average household income from third place a year ago. Last year it had the coveted 9 p.m. (ET) Thursday night spot, but when "Frasier" moved to the same time slot on Tuesday, wealthy viewers drifted away this year. The ratings for "Frasier" among households with incomes of $75,000-plus dropped to 8.4 from 10.9.

"There is a strong impact on lead-in and lead-out" despite the effects of channel zapping, says Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of media research for Media Edge.

This past season ABC's four-times-weekly "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" game show also took a big hit. All its comparable editions-Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday-dropped significantly in ratings against adults 18 and over, with average household incomes of at least $75,000. "Millionaire's" Sunday version dropped to a 6.4 rating from an 11.0 the year before; Tuesday sank to a 6.3 from a 10.9; and Thursday fell to a 5.5 from a 10.6. This past season, the new Wednesday edition earned a 6.5 rating, pulling in viewers with average household incomes of $44,010-the lowest of all "Millionaires." It ranked 134 overall of all network shows.

" `Millionaire' did well against every population group-older and younger, richer and poorer," says Mr. Schwartz, but now that its demographics have dropped, so too has its power of attracting the wealthiest part of the population.

Meanwhile, CBS also improved in attracting wealthier viewers in the recently concluded season. The Media Edge report showed that overall, CBS' viewers averaged annual incomes of almost $3,000 more per household than last year-an overall gain higher than any other TV network. "Survivor 2" especially helped push CBS' profile with wealthy viewers. Mr. Rothstein says the show overindexed against other programs when looking at adults ages 25 to 54 with incomes of $75,000 or more; CBS' new Thursday night crime drama, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," also scored well among wealthy viewers.

CABLE RELIES ON SELLING POINT

Many cable networks have been using this higher-viewer-income argument for a number of years. Mr. Adgate says household income data are more important for cable networks than pure viewer numbers, because their selling point is the power of reaching niche audiences, where total eyeballs are less critical.

Mediamark Research Inc. says many cable networks claim higher average viewer income than broadcast networks. Four cable networks have median household incomes in the $60,000-plus range-the Golf Channel ($66,459), Tech TV ($66,223), MSNBC ($63,652) and CNBC ($63,016). Ten cable networks also attract viewers with average household incomes higher than NBC-ESPN2, E!, Headline News, ESPN, CNN, Home & Garden Television, History Channel, ESPN Classic, VH1 and HBO.

The standout in this group is E!, says Mr. Adgate, noting, "E! is amazing. It shows up everywhere. I guess it's like eye candy for wealthy people."

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