This TV headline looks good: For the first time, cable networks grabbed more upfront advertising dollars than broadcast networks -- $8.96 billion versus broadcast's $8.5 billion.
But digging deeper, we can see this is like comparing a few apples to a lot of oranges. Typical published cable upfront numbers refer to all day-parts -- not just the prime time referenced for the broadcasters -- and some 70 advertising-supported cable networks, versus five to seven broadcast networks.
Still, with around 80% of the cable upfront completed so far, estimates are the business will grow 12% in dollars from last year to that $8.96 billion number. That's happy news. Another 20% of the business has yet to be completed for small to mid-sized networks.
What can broadcasters crow about this year? While overall dollars perked up around 3% to $8.5 billion, the main cheering ground comes from those strong 10% to 13% gains on the cost per thousand viewers. For many, this is still the core economic metric -- one whose rise can make up for many mistakes.
Looking closer, however, this isn't a David and Goliath picture anymore. Many cable networks, especially those in the top 10, are finding that, like the broadcast networks, they are now experiencing increasing ratings erosion. MTV, History and a few other networks were the exception this year.
Still, there's this flip side. Just like the the broadcasters, cable networks can charge -- you guessed it -- higher cost per thousands, all because of the same financial supply and demand rubric. Lower ratings for cable shows and higher advertising dollars mean higher CPMs.
Where's the overall industry growth? Many would say the real cable growth comes from channels not in the top 10- or 15 -ated networks -- those that can produce higher rated programming and/or, more importantly, still climb via the old-fashioned rung of cable growth, that of adding in more distribution in terms of subscribers.
This business isn't eating its young. It's the young eating into their elders.
Is that another cable headline?