Real Media Riffs - Monday, Apr 9, 2007

HEEL A CAB -- Over the years, the CAB has stood for many things: Innovation. Competition. Alternatives. And, especially, options. But if you were to describe it based on some recent behavior, you might say it represents the opposite of those things. You might say the CAB represents "Cable's Anti Bureau." Or, according to a frustrated executive at an organization on the short end of the CAB's antipathy, it could well represent the "Cartel Advertising Bureau."

Those acrimonious interpretations of the bureau's acronym stem from the fact that its most noteworthy efforts so far this year have involved using its considerable clout to block not one but two major initiatives supported by Madison Avenue: 1) Nielsen's deployment of commercial minute ratings; and 2) An ambitious test of a new online trading system developed by a steering committee comprised of influential advertisers and big media agency executives.

To be fair, both cases -- Nielsen's plan to begin rolling out evaluation data comparing average commercial minute ratings to traditional average program ratings, and the eBay Media Marketplace -- had some big issues that needed addressing. But instead of taking proactive positions to address the issues with these initiatives, the CAB sought to suppress the initiatives themselves. And from what we can see, successfully so.



Instead of letting Nielsen roll out the new commercial ratings data, and having the industry evaluate it as Nielsen fine-tuned the process, the CAB last October threatened to boycott the program until the data met the cable industry's standards. Clearly the data and the methods Nielsen initially planned to use to produce it were formative, but isn't that the point of evaluation data -- to give people a chance to be exposed to it and begin to understand the issues, before the data is rushed into the marketplace -- as it ultimately will be this fall, with a far shorter period of evaluation than it would have if the CAB had not gotten in the way.

To be sure, the CAB had some legitimate grievances in the way Nielsen originally planned to produce the commercial ratings data, but by derailing Nielsen's first steps, the CAB caused the first release of that data to be set for later this month, just before the start of upfront ad negotiations for 2007-08, and not leaving much, if any, time for buyers and sellers to truly reflect on the differences. Was it entirely a methodological play? Or was it, at least in some small measure, a stall tactic? Ultimately, we shall see how successful that move was. Cable had a tough time in last year's upfront, and even though some pundits have begun to talk up stronger market conditions for 2007-08, we don't see how things have changed a whole lot. And if we see a few big advertisers sit out the upfront the way they did last year, or dig in their heels over commercial ratings guarantees, well, it could be a pretty messy one once again.

But if the CAB's derailment of Nielsen's commercial ratings rollout smelled like panic, the bureau's attempt to put the kibosh on the eBay Media Marketplace has the scent of strong-arming, and maybe even some anti-competitive, collusive market behavior. Surely, cable networks -- or media companies of any kind -- are permitted to sell their wares anywhere and in any manner they choose. And there would be nothing wrong with any, or all of the members of the CAB to sit out a test of the eBay exchange. But to issue a press release on behalf of an entire industry -- and frankly, the part of the national TV marketplace that was most likely to play along in this test -- is anti-cooperative, if not anti-competitive.

"The only response we got from them was their press release," Brad Williams, vice president of communications for eBay, told MediaPost's MediaDailyNews in response to the CAB move. "We were pretty troubled by that. But the CAB doesn't dictate what its members do. It's not a cartel. It's a trade association."

So let us ask the folks who run the CAB: exactly what does its middle name stand for?

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