SHOPPING FOR CABLE TIME GETS EASIER; REP HITS THE SPOT: FULLY ELECTRONIC SITES TO TRIGGER MARKET GAINS

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Electronic systems are replacing byzantine invoice paperwork for buying spot cable TV ad time, and now another innovation has arrived to further revolutionize the process.

National Cable Communications, the nation's leading spot cable rep company, plans to begin posting availabilities on the Internet this month, creating the first end-to-end electronic sales tool for buying local cable.

Agencies will now be able to process local cable TV buys electronically, from scouting avails on the Internet at NCC's Web site (www.spotcable.com) to receiving affidavits and invoices by electronic transmission.

PAPER NIGHTMARE

Eliminating what several media buyers have described as a "paperwork nightmare," the move is expected to boost cable's share of the ad-spending pie, as more cable operators and ad agencies take advantage of the new technologies and systems.

Cable spot spending amounted to an estimated $280 million last year, but NCC vows to help increase that sum by using technology to eliminate steps and move toward electronic data interchange.

With consultation services and investments in the technology behind the new system, NCC has brought electronic data interchange to 110 out of 211 cable TV markets nationwide and the company expects to have all markets EDI-enabled by yearend, says Tom Olson, CEO of NCC.

"The buying process needs to be fully electronic to maximize opportunities. When more companies and agencies go fully electronic it should revolutionize cable, increasing dollars and commitments," says Jean Pool, exec VP-director of North American media services for J. Walter Thompson USA, New York.

FAR FROM COMPLETE

Although NCC is moving ahead with its plans to fully automate all local cable buying processes, the revolution is far from complete, warn experts.

"Local cable already has seen a lot of improvement, but there's a long way to go before everyone is using these electronic channels and EDI becomes an everyday reality everywhere," says Howard Nass, executive director-local broadcast for TN Media, New York. Mr. Nass also is head of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau's committee on EDI.

Obstacles to full EDI usage include the complexity of installing the technology within local cable operators' systems, but that is slowly being overcome, Mr. Olson says, by hands-on guidance from NCC through its 14 offices.

Also, not every U.S. cable TV market yet has a fully functioning "interconnect" unit, which plays a key role in EDI, he says.

An interconnect consists of cable multiple system operators that have joined forces to offer a single menu of local cable buying choices, greatly simplifying the hodgepodge of options traditionally marketed by competing local cable TV factions.

The success of interconnects such as Los Angeles' Adlink and the Chicago Cable Interconnect are providing models for other markets to follow. Six or seven more interconnects are expected by yearend, joining the 16 now considered fully functioning, says Mr. Olson.

TARGET OF 2002

NCC expects to see all of the top 50 markets interconnected by 2002.

For agencies, going electronic dramatically slashes the work involved in buying local cable spots, eliminating steps and layers of paperwork. Instead of wrestling with dozens of redundant paper-based orders and invoices, agencies are given a single, electronic invoice with details of a local cable buy.

MINIMIZES ERRORS

EDI minimizes errors and cuts operating costs since data are entered once and there is no need to re-key information, as there is when using paper-based orders and invoices.

"We tracked the process agencies had to go through to buy spot cable TV and it involved a mind-boggling number of slips of paper, so we were giving them stacks of invoices that could cost five times as much to administer as buying regular broadcast media time," says Jim Mittal, general manager of the Chicago Cable Interconnect.

Adding EDI to the spot cable buying process ought to enrich opportunities within the cable TV market, too, says Abby Auerbach, senior partner and director of U.S. local broadcast at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York. Ms. Auerbach is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' EDI committee.

"Measuring and managing spot cable TV has been extremely difficult, very territorial and full of technical problems including the paperwork issues, but EDI should smooth out these problems and make it more accessible for agencies to buy," she says.

The advent of new media options, such as addressable TV advertising that can be targeted to specific neighborhoods and ZIP codes, ought to be easier to deploy with EDI, Ms. Auerbach says.

EDI FRONT AND CENTER

"EDI is the future, and it's just the beginning of what will be possible with technological advancements that can make local advertising extremely effective," she says.

Technology is not the only key to success in selling spot cable time, says Mr. Nass.

"To make local cable TV sell as well as it can, it's got to be priced fairly. . . I'm buying eyeballs, and those eyeballs can't cost more just because they're local," he says.

He adds that marketers of spot cable time also must be aggressive sellers, constantly educating buyers about the unique flexibility and targeting power of local cable TV.

"Technology is great, but media buying remains a people business heavily

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