That thesis, however, is being challenged by an A.C. Nielsen study commissioned by Turner Broadcasting Sales.
In essence, the "Media at the Millennium" presentation seems to support Turner's belief that the decline in broadcast prime-time ratings over the last decade, coupled with the growth of cable, means that shifting spending from broadcast to cable can deliver reach without resorting to excessive frequency.
"If you want to be in prime time and you want to control your costs, you've got to put more money in the medium that's growing and less in the one that's shrinking," says Barry Fischer, exec VP-marketing and research, Turner Broadcasting Sales.
"The basic issue is [that] broadcast is shrinking in prime time. We're suggesting that 40%, 50% or 60% of [a TV] advertising budget should be in cable."
PITCHED TO BUYERS
In February, the Turner study was unveiled at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' fourth annual Media Conference in an address by Steve Heyer, Turner Broadcasting Sales' president of worldwide sales, marketing, distribution and international networks. Since then, the Turner executives have been pitching the study directly to buyers.
Initial reactions have been mixed.
"We've been doing similar analyses for years and we think it's a very compelling sales pitch," says Gene DeWitt, president-CEO, DeWitt Media, New York. "This is the kind of thing media buyers should have been doing all along. They should thank Turner for doing their job for them."
"It's nice to see that they've put some research behind it," says Susan Nathan, senior VP-director of media resources, McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. "It's not anything revolutionary. [Moving clients to mix broadcast and cable] is something we've been doing all along at McCann. What's ground-breaking is showing us research to back it up."
SOME QUESTIONS ARISE
Still, some buyers question the survey. "Their intent from a sales point was right. Their execution in the end rendered the outcome at best self-serving and, at worst, misleading," says Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Grey Advertising, New York. "There's an inherent fatal flaw. By intentionally ignoring local spot, the study is meaningless. The smart media buyer uses every arrow in his quiver," not just broadcast or cable. "They're falling into the trap of looking at spot tactically, not strategically."
SOME MEDIA IGNORED
Mr. Mandel points out that radio and other media were ignored.
"The question not asked sort of makes you want to throw the whole thing out. Unless you tell the whole truth, why should I believe the end? If it's an oversight on their part, it's an extremely major oversight. And I say that knowing we spend more money in cable than any other agency," he says.
Mr. Mandel argues a local spot in a city like New York can reach more viewers than it would on almost any cable network. "Clients ignore the fact that because cable ratings are so small, you can actually get a higher rating if you buy a [local] spot on WPIX."
Turner executives respond that their study addressed national advertisers selling to national audiences who need to align their impressions with sales consumption patterns of their customers.
"They do have legitimate reasons they didn't take it to the level I wanted it to be taken," Mr. Mandel concedes, but he's not alone in his criticism.
"It's interesting," Howard Nass, senior VP-corporate director of spot broadcast, TN Media, New York. "But a smart media planner can do the same thing-within network itself you can change your reach and frequency by buying different dayparts."
It isn't apples and oranges but apples and apples that Mr. Nass sees: "You have a dollar. At one store you can buy five big, beautiful apples for one dollar each. You can go to another store and buy ten apples for a dollar. They're smaller apples, sure, but they're still apples."
Mr. Heyer counters that shifting spending between limited dayparts will only sharpen the same supply and demand dilemma that caused prime-time rates to escalate in the first place.
"We're not saying `Don't buy broadcast,"' Mr. Fischer adds, "We're simply saying there's too much money chasing too few ratings points. Cable is a clear, clean replacement with no downside."
While some might argue it haA fan: Susan Nathan sees research value.
a vested interest in Nielsen's conclusions, Mr. Fischer says the company went to great lengths to be fair. "This study is as fair to broadcast as a study done by broadcast could be."
"We tried to lay it out factually and build it with real empirical data," Mr. Heyer says, adding that agency research departments such as Leo Burnett USA's, seem to agree with study conclusions.
RATIOS COULD BE MORE ACCURATE
Mr. Mandel feels the study's cost ratios could have been more accurate. "Their overall pricing on network is too high, their overall pricing on cable is too low."
"Jon's criticism of costs represents how well he buys," Mr. Fischer says, adding the figures used came from the Nielsen ratings. "Everyone knows the Nielsen averages tend to be a bit high. We acknowledge these are ranges with extreme variables."
Mr. Fischer says it's like asking what a car costs. Is it a sedan or a sport utility vehicle? What options are included? A lot of things will influence the overall cost. Likewise, ad costs depend as much on who made the buy as when-scatter or upfront.
"Our goal was to really help our clients get a better handle on how to use cable," Mr. Heyer says. He wants buyers to use the information from the survey to achieve an "effective functional parity between broadcast and cable."
Mr. Fischer calls it "A tool to better understand how to deal with a multichannel universe. . . The next step isn't `How much broadcast can I cut back?' but `How much cable can I buy?' "
Primarily, Mr. Heyer would like to influence how buyers view cable. "I don't want them just to know it, I want them to do it. I want them to move from their gut to their head to their hand" and buy more cable. "We're expecting to see a significant increase in money being spent on cable. I don't expect that overnight worlds will turn. I don't expect a transformation, but an evolution. Old behaviors die hard."
"This is an answer, not the answer. And it's probably not a good answer," Mr. Mandel says.
The study was never intended as the Rosetta Stone of advertising, Mr. Fischer says. "This is a tool to use to compare our models to your clients' needs and priorities."
Mr. Heyer says Turner wanted to open buyers eyes beyond broadcast.
"Premiere product should be purchased whether it's broadcast or cable," he says.