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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Local Cable's Glowing Twilight

"All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come."--Victor Hugo

It seems hard to believe but nearly 20 years ago I used the above quotation from my favorite novelist to finish an article that I wrote urging advertisers and their agencies to embrace local cable.

Today, for vastly different reasons, I once again give an endorsement of the medium. Stay with me for a minute or two as my reasoning may not be mainstream.

Upfront, the annual statistic that everyone should look at tells the tale. The most recent Nielsen data says that over the last year, the basic cable share of primetime viewing is 58.6%. Unless you are a media primitive, local market buys (with no national cable overlay) have to have local cable as an integral part of the media mix.

Qualitatively, the story only gets better as time passes. With more channels open for local commerical insertion, local cable can give you a selectivity of interest and demographic that broadcast cannot hope to match. Promotions are another area whether local cable has a leg up over broadcasters. The local inter-connects (clusters of contiguous counties or cable systems) can tap into promotions developed by the cable networks. A local cable promotion on ESPN featuring a giveaway to a major sports venue is something that local broadcasters cannot begin to match in production quality and usually in value of the promotional trip. The extra weight you can get via "taggables" which are usually 10 second mentions after a cable network's promotional spot are something that are virtually extinct in broadcast TV.

The recession has also made local cable more attractive than ever. Local cable's roots, prior to inter-conncects was in selling zones which were all cable households in a township or a county or a zip code cluster. Politicians with sophisticated media teams have used them to great effect running different issue copy in different zones. George W. Bush's victories in pivotal Ohio in 2000 and 2004 were sometimes credited to his media maven Karl Rove using local cable to maximum effect. In a weak economy such as today, a multi-unit retailer can used zoned advertising to prop up weak stores or even support the rare new location these days.

And, with local cable there are bonus spots. Called autofill by most MSO's (Multi-system operators) and Time Bank by Comcast, these no charge units can really help advertisers who are struggling in today's moribund economy. The amount of free time that you will receive will vary widely by region of the country, the whim of the cable sales chief, the skill of your negotiators, and the insertion equipment that the system has. But, it is an opportunity to really pile on the points against key prospects that the occasional no charge unit on broadcast cannot hope to replicate. This situation will not last forever but, as we write, the local television economy has not bottomed out in many markets.

Incredibly, there are still local and regional advertisers out there who have yet to use local cable. I met with someone last month who told me that she "might try local cable soon." I am not easily shocked at my age but this one really amazed me.

Why do people not use it? A cable sales director told me that people sometimes tell her that "it is too complicated." I suppose if you bought a wild patchwork quilt of zoned buys or lived in one of those rare markets without a good interconnect, there could be some truth to that. But, what of your client's needs?

An argument that I have heard is that local cable should be avoided as you do not get your message into satellite homes in the local DMA. This is absolutely true but misses a bigger issue. Let us say that a market has only 50% cable penetration. If you do not use local cable and, let us say 60% of that DMA's viewing is to basic cable in primetime you are missing a lot of reach potential. How much? Well 60% of the 50% local penetration means that, at any point in time, possibly up to 30% of the market has no chance of seeing your commercial during primetime. Yes, you do not reach everyone as viewers of cable channels in satellites homes will not get the local cable message. But, the opportunity loss of not reaching those viewing in cable homes is immense.

Others say that local cable numbers are too small. Duh! Ever take a look at broadcast numbers these days in a local people meter (LPM) market? A carefully selected package of cable channels bought locally can deliver very well when blended with broadcast stations. Broadcast stations alone cannot deliver the market on their own at satisfactory levels in almost all cases in 2009.

In this space, in recent months, I have been very candid about how advertiser supported TV of all kinds faces huge challenges ahead. But local cable will have some interesting new offerings in the months to come that will increase their useful life somewhat and bring in new users.

Make sure that you give local cable a fair shake in your current plans. Now may be the best time ever to use it aggressively. Dive headfirst through this window of opportunity. As DVR, TiVo, and Hulu et al grow, the window will surely narrow and then someday shut.

If your would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can e-mail him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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