NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- At a time when many consumers and advertisers are questioning the dominance of broadcast TV, CBS is for the first time in its history launching a pre-emptive salvo before this year's upfront market to distance itself from the rest of its network brethren.
CBS will run ads Monday in USA Today and on the front page of The New York Times, telling viewers and anyone else who cares to listen that "Only CBS" has increased ratings and has launched a No. 1 hit show in the 2008-09 TV season.
The so-called Tiffany Network, which has managed these feats despite years of audience erosion due to the rise of cable and the internet, makes its case just two weeks before the start of the annual upfront, when the big broadcast networks try to sell 70% to 80% of their ad inventory for the coming fall season. "There's a lot going on out there, but CBS is separating itself from the rest of the field," said Jo Ann Ross, the network's president-network sales.
CBS has reason to get the word out about its performance this season. The network's parent corporation is less insulated from downturns in the advertising marketplace than are its rivals. Approximately 70% of CBS Corp.'s total revenue is tied to U.S. advertising, according to research from Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson. But TV revenue in its fourth quarter fell 8% to about $2.21 billion, owing to a tough ad market for the company's local TV stations and broadcast network. The latter is viewed as the corporation's most reliable economic engine; meanwhile, ABC, NBC and Fox are all divisions of much larger media conglomerates.
Inside CBS, according to people familiar with the company, executives have grown concerned that its TV network is being painted with a broad brush of negative news about broadcast TV, which have seen ratings decline this season and are expecting to meet with hard-nosed negotiations in this year's upfront market.
Although it faces the same fragmenting consumer audience as it rivals, CBS does have some bragging rights this season. Its audience is up 12% among total viewers, 8% among adults 25 to 54, and up 7% among adults 18 to 49 through 31 weeks of the season, according to the network.
Known for its heavy reliance on procedural dramas such as "CSI," "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case," CBS offers the most scripted fare of any network, about 82% of its schedule. Advertisers have begun to complain about networks' overuse of cheaper reality programming that can often be seen as offensive or humiliating.
'In the best shape'
"CBS seems to be in the best shape with its returning series heading into the upfront," Steve Sternberg, exec VP-audience analysis, at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna, said in a recent research note. "Its 10 p.m. tp 11 p.m. series might benefit most from NBC removing its 10 p.m. Monday-Friday dramas in favor of Jay Leno."
With the TV business in such flux, the network wants to drum its relatively healthy situation into marketers' heads. "We have the ability to use our resources to tell a story, and we want to reach influencers and want to reach the decision makers," said George Schweitzer, president-marketing at CBS.
CBS faces an interesting situation heading into the upfront, according to media buyers: It will have the most ratings points to sell -- but with the economy in disarray, it's unclear whether advertisers will have the wherewithal to buy all of them, particularly if CBS seeks rate increases. Already, marketers have canceled a higher-than-usual amount of second-quarter options and have delayed decisions about third-quarter outlays. Ad buyers do believe CBS is likely to take share from rivals, even if the overall volume of dollars in this year's upfront is down.