The Biz: MTV, TBS play against Net ratings

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Cable networks are no longer afraid to take on the big boys of broadcast.

In a bid to change the perception in the marketplace that cable is a lesser medium than broadcast, Viacom's MTV and Turner Broadcasting System are now reporting audience figures that compare directly to broadcast ratings, and believe other cable networks, and the press, should follow their lead.

"To look at broadcast and cable as separate entities, especially when evaluating younger viewers is no longer the right way to look at television," says Betsy Frank, exec VP-research and planning, MTV Networks.

Cable Catches up

MTV has developed a list that compares top cable shows to top broadcast programs, using demographic data rather than "in-universe" figures-the standard method cable uses to report audience. In-universe figures count only homes plugged into cable. At the start of this year, Turner Broadcasting also scrapped in-universe ratings, and now only reports ratings based on total U.S. viewers and demographics.

Both moves reflect the fact that some cable networks have caught up to broadcast in terms of audience numbers. According to figures trumpeted at the Cable Advertising Bureau conference last week, prime-time ad-supported cable bested the combined prime-time viewership of the seven broadcast networks in 2002-the first time that ever happened.

"If we as a business continue to isolate ourselves with our own way of measuring ourselves, we will never get the respect we deserve when going for the dollars that other guys are getting," says Jack Wakshlage, Turner's chief research officer.

In-universe ratings were developed in cable's infancy, when there were just a handful of cable networks. In-universe numbers compared the smaller viewership of cable networks to one another in particular coverage areas, rather than to the networks broadcasting nationwide. But today, the largest cable networks like Turner and MTV have almost 80% coverage across the country. Still, many cable networks still use in-universe or household shares

"It's a good thing to drop in-universe," says David Poltrack, exec VP- research and planning at Viacom's CBS. "From an advertising point of view, the currency of the business is your total audience. Advertisers only care about how many people are actually seeing their commercial." CBS still reports household share. "Our primary criteria now, however, is total viewers, not total households," Poltrack says.

Meanwhile, smaller cable networks, such as Court TV, or cable companies such as Discovery with many different networks, still want to hold on to in-universe numbers. According to Darren Campo, VP-programming and planning, Court TV, total viewer numbers do not show how well small cable networks are doing because it takes them out of their competitive set.

"It's folly to ignore a network's household coverage rating," Campo says. "That is the leading indicator of a network's competitive potential." Nielsen Media Research supplies in-universe in order to "look at program trends over a historical period of time," says Jack Loftus, communications director at Nielsen Media Research.

Media buyers concur. "The only time we look at in-universe ratings is to look at cable growth stories," says Kristian Magel, senior VP-associate network director at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia International.