But when it comes to how much the same media buyers are willing to pay for commercial time, broadcast and cable networks typically are separated by many zeros placed before a decimal point.
All but a handful of prime-time shows on the Big 4 broadcast networks routinely yield 30-second commercial rates in the six-figures -- with episodes of shows such as "Seinfeld" occasionally entering a seventh.
FOOTBALL STANDS OUT
So far this season, only one of the top-rated, regularly scheduled cable network programs has broken the six-figure mark, according to an Advertising Age survey of leading cable TV media buyers.
That fare, ESPN's regular season National Football League coverage, carries an estimated 30-second unit cost of $105,000 and is one of a rare breed of cable network programs -- mostly sports-related -- that even approach parity with the broadcast networks.
Most of the cable shows analyzed in this survey placed in the four- and even three-figure range, with a few networks falling precariously near the two-figure range.
For the purposes of this analysis, Ad Age asked leading cable media buyers to estimate the average market rate for a 30-second spot (exclusive of any packaging or multiple-run guarantees) on the top two season-to-date shows on each of the Nielsen-rated cable networks.
While some of the highest-rated shows aren't necessarily the most expensive nor the most in demand, we used the highest-rated shows as the criteria for this poll in order to create a common comparison across all networks.
Though certain special, one-time-only cable network programs can command dramatically higher unit costs, such as cable original movies or special events like MTV's "Video Music Awards," those once-shot features were not factored into this analysis.
The results yield a picture of a widely stratified marketplace for cable ad time, separated by ESPN's six-figure rate on one end and Court TV's $100 30-second unit rates at the low end.
In fact, some buyers estimated Court TV's and a few other emerging cable networks' commercial units in the two-figure range. But after averaging and rounding, Court TV generated an average rate of about $100; at least one agency cited $250 per Court TV unit.
Also dwelling on the bottom of cable's ad-demand heap are such bargain-basement opportunities as Travel Channel's "Appalachian Stories," available for about $200 a unit. For another hundred bucks, a media plan could tap into "Julia Child" on Food Network and Fox News' "The Fox Report."
These bargain rates are influenced by a variety of factors, not the least of which is the youth of many of these networks and the fact they've yet to establish a market.
Most of them also fall below critical thresholds of U.S. household coverage and ratings delivery, though some obviously are appealing to valuable targeted audience niches.
The disparity of cable network pricing also appears to confirm an argument developed by Turner Broadcasting System President-Chief Operating Officer Steven Heyer, who says basic cable isn't really a single marketplace. He argues it is comprised of several strata of demand, the top of which is reaching "functional parity" with the major broadcast networks.
In a few isolated cases, the marketplace appears to be supporting Mr. Heyer's theory, but not quite at the level of unit rate parity. However, it should be noted many top-priced cable shows would look closer to parity with some broadcast network fare on a cost-per-thousand basis, particularly when compared against certain demographics.
But cable demand appears to be only partly a function of distribution. The results of this survey did not necessarily support the notion that "fully-distributed" basic cable networks are in league with broadcast.
While it is true that top shows on some of the most broadly penetrated cable networks -- such as football on ESPN and TNT and wrestling on TNT, TBS and USA Network -- did rank as some of cable's most expensive shows, Comedy Central has proven you don't have to be everywhere to attract the attention of almost everyone.
`SOUTH PARK' STUNNER
With an estimated rate of $45,000 per 30-second spot, Comedy's controversial hit "South Park" ranked as the most expensive non-sports program on cable and the third-most expensive overall.
"If they could program it three times a day, seven days a week, they would," notes Bill Croasdale, exec VP of Western International Media, West Hollywood, Calif.
Mr. Croasdale says it is only because "South Park" has attained such a hit status that Comedy Central is able to fetch such a high rate for the show.
That demand is remarkable indeed, when you consider that Comedy Central, which is only in 49% of U.S. TV homes, is generating about 10 times the advertising rate of the top shows on a network such as Family Channel, a fully distributed cable network available in 73% of U.S. TV homes. Shows surveyed for Family Channel, sold last year to Fox Kids Worldwide unit of News Corp., are not representative of what the cable channel will air this fall.
`AB FAB' ON LIST
Meanwhile, Comedy Central serves as an example of the wide disparity of demand for ad time among cable networks. While "South Park" commands top dollar, the next highest-rated show on the network, "Absolutely Fabulous," generated only an estimated unit rate of $2,100.
Such swings in demand are due to a wide variety of factors, with human nature being chief among them.
"People like to be in the newest, coolest, hippest thing," explains Bob Flood, exec VP-national broadcast of DeWitt Media, New York. "Sometimes that goes beyond strict audience values."
While "South Park" clearly is delivering on audience values, media buyers say some of its premium is due to the pop culture buzz surrounding the show. "It's the "Seinfeld" of cable," says Steve Grubbs, exec VP-director of national broadcast and programming at BBDO Worldwide.
Demand can push premium prices within specific categories, as well, explaining why less ubiquitous hits on cable generate a big appetite among certain advertisers.
"By and large, everything is driven by the audience and demos a show delivers, but once you [add] the cachet factor of a particular show, it can drive pricing beyond delivery. If you are an automotive account and you want to get into [A&E's] `Biography,' there may only be five spots available in the show and if there are 10 car companies chasing it, that is going to push the costs up," explains Mr. Flood.
In fact, demand can fluctuate for a specific show on a particular network depending on the time of day it is scheduled, says Mr. Croasdale.
"There are huge gaps in pricing depending on whether you buy ESPN's `SportsCenter' in prime time, or `SportsCenter' in early fringe, or `SportsCenter' in late night," he adds.
Demand also isn't necessarily a function of the biggest audience delivery. Sometimes it stems from the special attributes or environment of a particular type of programming.
" `Intimate Portrait' is my highest demand show, but it is not my highest-rated show," explains Lynn Picard, senior VP-ad sales at Lifetime Television.
While "Supermarket Sweep" and "Golden Girls" ranked highest in season-to-date household delivery, Ms. Picard says those shows are not at the top of advertisers' demand list. In fact, she says "Supermarket Sweep" is no longer on the schedule and is the type of programming Lifetime is replacing as it moves more deeply into more of its own "branded" programming.
"Cable was never supposed to be about the highest ratings. It was supposed to be about targetability and a unique relationship with your viewers. You can't take that away," she says.
Joe Mandese is editor of The Myers Report