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Cable TV has come a long way, baby, in the area of marketing prowess. Advertising Age's first Cable Marketer of the Year, a selection featured in our Special Report last week, is the perfect example of just how far some network brands have come.

Discovery Channel, our pick as the year's top cable marketer, has made itself the king of the jungle in science and nature TV documentary and has carried its brand aggressively into retail outlets, direct-mail catalogs, various cross-promotions and new high-tech media. But the activity always centers on the core cable content and brand. As our story said, Discovery may be ensuring its survival amid the changes to come in entertainment programming delivery.

And the industry, too, has made major strides. It has attained, or soon will, its long sought after goal of 70% TV household penetration, largely because of effective branding and marketing by ESPN, CNN, MTV and the like.

If there's a downside for the industry, it's at the local level, where cable operators come in daily contact with cable subscribers-people who long have had complaints about their cable service. Although national cable organizations have forced improvements in this important area, there's still much to be done town by town, city by city, state by state.

According to a study this fall, the percentage of cable customers with service problems is still 43%, although down from 50% a few years ago. That's a sizable number of people who have problems with cable operators and, thus, negative perceptions about the entire industry.

Those numbers had better change fast because technical competition looms with the telecommunications deregulation bill now in Congress. And another survey indicates consumers look more favorably on telecos as potential suppliers of their in-home programming services.

What's shaping up is a monumental image-waging battle between local cable operators and operators of the telephone kind. The stakes are much higher for the cable kind.

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