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Meeting with a group of media planning supervisors recently, I happened by an office where a sign was prominently displayed: "Torture numbers and they'll tell you anything." That message is worth keeping in mind as the broadcast upfront begins.

A lot of numbers are being thrown around and unusual comparisons are being made. But much of this misses the central point being discussed with increasing vigor among clients, senior planners and senior buyers: Big ratings -- no matter how the scale is defined -- no longer are a prerequisite for achieving a client's reach and frequency goals.

That's a good thing. There aren't many 10.0 ratings out there to buy. Ten years ago, of the prime-time shows on ABC, CBS and NBC, 41% delivered a 10.0 adults 25- to 54-years-old rating or better. Today, it's six out of 100, including Fox.


The real debate is not about purchasing a 30-second announcement every quarter-hour for seven days in all NBC prime-time shows. Yet NBC's May 1998 "Marketing Solutions" paper suggests just that: "And perhaps most important, [NBC reaches] more of the viewers who buy more of your products. In a single week, NBC reaches 21% more adults 18-49 with $75,000-plus household income than the No. 2 network and 32% more than the top 10 cable networks combined."

Unfortunately that's based on a buying pattern costing about $13 million (i.e., $150,000 per :30 spot) in one week on NBC! Almost no one could afford it. So what's the relevance of such a claim?

The real debate is about practical, affordable approaches that reflect how clients rationally manage in today's fragmenting, multichannel environment. The reality is clients buy a variety of programs on a variety of networks -- cable and broadcast -- based upon target audience appeal, cost and, ultimately, reach/frequency delivery.


It is not about the CBS approach in its recent "MarkeTalk" paper. It says cable viewers are less valuable than broadcast viewers because they make less money. In other words, there's a clear differentiation between broadcast and cable viewers. But CBS also says advertisers do not need to buy cable at all since the broadcast medium heavily duplicates the cable audience. It cannot be both ways.

Nor is the debate about "quintile" studies that conveniently exclude the broadcast-only universe, even though clients are paying for that audience.

The real debate is about the undeniable fact that broadcast and cable compete on an equal footing in the multichannel household, and the number of those households continues to grow. When you index multichannel households against such premium advertiser demographics as upper-income households ($75,000-plus), you'll find the fully distributed cable networks, such as TBS Superstation and TNT, available in 90% of those homes.


The debate is not about a single show defining a network. Wrestling no more defines cable than "NYPD Blue" defines ABC. They have movies; we have movies. They have sitcoms; we have sitcoms. They have sports; we have sports. They have original dramas; we have original dramas. They have first-run windows for theatricals; now so do we.

In this fragmented market, no single network derives its audience reach or demographic characteristic through any single program or short list of programs.

The real debate is about marketplace leverage and about parity and the substitutability it provides. Advertisers now can move substantial national ad weight and dollars into a growing medium and create leverage. This was proven in our "Media at the Millennium" studies. We replaced specific broadcast shows with fully distributed cable and it worked.

We showed advertisers there's a choice, and with choice comes leverage. But let's get back to torturing numbers.


There are individual programs that generate large ratings even in this fragmented market. No one disputes that. But those programs alone are not sufficient to build either an affordable or an effective schedule for delivering a client's reach goals. That's why smart planners and buyers are looking beyond simple lists of top-rated shows. Such rankings are more about a network's business-to-business marketing than about practical media deliveries and capabilities. No one is fooled.

Clients are looking at optimization in all its forms, at effectiveness studies, at branded media, at marketing partnerships, at targeting, at minimization of waste, at advanced analytics, at volumetrics, at getting on the air for more weeks. All speak to a rational view of planning and buying in a marketplace that no longer is determined by a roster of programs that score at the top of a shrinking broadcast heap.

Advertisers look for the best possible environment for their message. One of those measures has been commercial clutter. The broadcast networks, to cover CPM guarantees, have had to introduce more commercial units in a program hour over the last year or so. This will continue as audience erosion and revenue pressures mount.

Today, the playing field in this respect is equal. Broadcast and many fully distributed cable networks air approximately the same number of commercial minutes per hour.


The old lines that used to differentiate broadcast from cable are becoming blurred -- in terms of reach delivery, demographics and the other quantitative measures, that used to separate them. They have also become blurred in terms of programming, consumer branding, commercial clutter and other qualitative measures.

Catchy slogans such as CBS' "cable faithful" or ABC's fine-print caveats can no longer hide the fact that differences between broadcast and cable are evaporating. Media planning and buying theories and practices are already years beyond these dated, regressive and irrelevant approaches to the national TV marketplace.

Tortured numbers, masquerading as research, can no longer be expected to confuse advertisers about what they already know. Today, cable and broadcast are often substitutable for meeting reach and frequency goals.

The data confirm it. No tortured numbers; just common sense. Studies and page ads seeking to refute it are merely desperate attempts to revive a past that is no longer viable. It also seeks to confuse and paralyze the marketplace, which is not in the best interests of clients.

It's a one television world.

Mr. Heyer is president-chief operating officer, Turner Broadcasting System.

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