Much has been said about viewer-losing broadcast networks needing to get "edgier" and perhaps more niche-like to compete with cable networks. But that might be a big mistake.
Broadcast networks would be giving up reach, the one thing they still have over cable networks, says Brian Wieser, senior research analyst of Pivotal Research Group.
But, you say, what about those high-rated cable shows that get so much buzz? They’re overrated, so to speak.
Wieser writes: "While ratings are important as components of the advertising inventory available for the sale or as measures of popularity of a given program or network, we believe that reach is at least as important, and often more important from both an ad sales and a distribution/retransmission consent/affiliate fee perspective."
For marketers, he says "reach" remains an important metric. That’s because media agencies still typically plan budgets based on optimizing the reach of their intended target and the frequency of their messages to that target audience.
And in a fragmented media world -- full of still-growing cable networks and a new array of digital options -- this actually means a lot more: "Media vehicles with the greatest reach will, all else equal, always be the most efficient places to spend money."
Which is why one might hear -- too much so -- about digital media platforms always seeking more "scale" and looking for more "reach." So there. Back to broadcast TV.
Look closer, says Wieser: "Most people watch some broadcast network TV over the course of a week, while relatively few people watch any one cable network."
Even TV Watch sees that some viewing data makes for easy comparisons: On a one-to-one basis, virtually any broadcast network can easily beat a cable network in prime time.
For example, according to Nielsen, season-to-date prime-time total viewers on CBS beat USA Network's fourth quarter numbers (12.5 million to 2.9 million viewers); ABC bested TNT (7.9 million to 2.2 million); NBC beat upstart History (7.5 million to 2.2 million). And even the CW gets top honors over A&E, Discovery and many others. (CW gets 1.9 million viewers; A&E, 1.6 million and Discovery 1.3 million)
Though broadcast ratings are drifting lower, Wieser says they each dominate leading cable networks by two or three times more reach.
So it isn’t good for an advertiser to buy too much of one cable network. That advertiser will very quickly "begin to saturate the same audiences with frequency," he says.
But what about those seemingly good cable ratings? "Ratings are useful indicators of the relative depth of appeal of a network's programming to pay TV subscribers, but wide reach is a key indicator of the breadth of appeal, " Wieser says.
It's this breadth of appeal that broadcast networks don't want to give up on -- for good reason. "Any efforts by broadcast networks to program for niche audiences or seek to be "edgy" like so many cable networks could seemingly put some of this advantage at risk."