Unplug this twisted cable

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New research from the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau suggests the broadcast TV networks will owe $109 million in makegood ads to advertisers this summer because of a falloff in ratings. But there are two problems. First, the conclusion is based on questionable logic. Second (and the bigger problem), such dubious research is hurting CAB's credibility.

Cable TV and the CAB have a great story to tell. Cable offers some of the most appealing content on TV (HBO's "The Sopranos") and delivers a range of channels that give advertisers a chance to target messages. Numbers are on cable's side, too. Universal McCann's Bob Coen, for example, projects advertisers will boost spending with cable TV networks by 8% in this difficult year even as spending on the four main broadcast networks dips 2.5%. So why does the cable trade group undermine its credibility with a bogus study that has media buyers rolling their eyes?

CAB's "research" is this: It tracked broadcast networks' Nielsen viewership numbers for June, July and August, 1995-2000, and observed that the audience falls in July and August. (That's called vacation and summer camp.) It then took June 2001 broadcast network numbers and adjusted them downward to project July and August results. That projection, it found, suggests the networks would deliver 566,000 fewer households this July and August than last year.

If the broadcast networks promised the same number of viewers this summer as last summer, the CAB concluded, then they would underdeliver by a half million households. Based on average commercial prices, CAB said, networks would then owe advertisers $109 million in free future ad time to make up the shortfall.

Point 1: The 566,000 household shortfall is fiction, not fact. CAB hasn't a clue what audience size broadcasters promised to advertisers this summer. Point 2: The $109 million figure is fiction, not fact.

Media buyers who spent any time with the study quickly saw its shortcomings. If it aims to help media buyers and advertisers make smart TV ad decisions, CAB surely can come up with more compelling and useful data with which to promote cable. (Even so, broadcast network bashing is curious in an era of cross-media deals where all the nets have cable interests.)

Truth in advertising is good. So is truth in advertising research.

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