Cable's Rise Is Making TV Hits Harder to Predict

'Dead' Walk and 'Duck' Flies As Cable, Others Defy Big-Four Dominance

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AMC's "The Walking Dead" regularly delivered more 18-to-49-year-olds than any broadcast series this season. History's "The Bible" was the No. 1 show on Sunday nights. A&E's "Duck Dynasty" is igniting more social chatter than "American Idol." The finale of "Downton Abbey" drew over 8 million viewers -- for PBS. All 13 episodes of "House of Cards" premiered on Netflix to rave reviews. And NBC ended February sweeps in fifth place behind Univision, a first for one of the Big Four.

"The Bible" on History was No. 1 Sunday nights.
Needless to say, it's been an interesting few months for the TV industry.

While the viewer migration to second and third screens is an old story, there's been a constant that hasn't changed since the early days of TV: Advertisers could count on big numbers from broadcasters. This season, however, marks the first when several runaway hits are airing in places other than the Big Four. And that's causing head-scratching heading into upfronts, where advertisers spent $9 billion last May to lock in inventory for the major TV networks.

"It's become more challenging for advertisers," said Christopher Vollmer, head of Booz & Co.'s global media and entertainment business. "The value of buying into a broadcast network has changed -- there isn't the same stability in the schedule, even during sweeps. There's less predictability and less visibility as to where and when viewers will show up."

"Viewers care less about what network a show is on -- if it is cable or broadcast -- and are just going to where the content is," said Amy Sotiridy, director-national broadcast at Initiative. As a result, Mr. Vollmer predicts advertisers may be cautious as to how much money they commit in the upfronts, potentially holding dollars back to hedge their bets.

"Ten years from now, broadcast may just be another distribution vehicle," said Gary Carr, senior VP-national broadcast at TargetCast. But in the immediate future, media buyers believe the impact will be negligible.

Cable has long appealed to advertisers as an alternative to broadcast. But it's only recently that cable has been earning broadcast-size ratings numbers. AMC's blockbuster "The Walking Dead" captured a staggering 12.4 million viewers, 8.1 of which are in the all-important 18-49 demographic.

"The Walking Dead," in fact, pulled a 5.6 rating for season to date, beating CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" with a 5.4, NBC's "The Voice," with a 4.4 and ABC's "Modern Family" with a 4.4.

So could this be the year big bucks leave the network TV upfront for cable, video, mobile and other viewing platforms? Don't bet on it.

Media buyers don't foresee a systemic shift in the immediate future. "Sure, there are a handful of shows that beat broadcast, but when you get past those few, there are much higher-rated shows on broadcast than cable," said Mr. Carr. And for advertisers, the opportunity to buy into these hits is narrow. "There's a limited supply of inventory for these shows," said Marc Morse, senior VP-national buying, at RJ Palmer. "It's not like there are 26 episodes of 'The Walking Dead.' There's limited supply and it's expensive."

Media buyers suggested last year that ad packages for the third season have ranged from $200,000 to $260,000, which tops that of CBS's "NCIS" and ABC's "Revenge."

"The Walking Dead" aired 16 episodes in its third season; "The Bible" was just a five-episode miniseries and other popular new arrivals like History's "Vikings" and A&E's "Bates Motel" have nine and 10, respectively. In comparison, ABC's Sunday night drama "Revenge" will air 22 episodes this season, while CBS's freshman series "Elementary" is slated for 24 episodes.

The upshot: It doesn't matter so much where advertisers are buying -- TV, cable, YouTube or anywhere else -- but what they're buying. "While [these shows] help the networks' visibility in the upfront, no one knows what's actually going to be a hit," said Mr. Morse.

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