InSight: Down the Rabbit Hole

The rallying cry of “content is king” has become a byword in our frenzied media age. Yet if content is king, then media is the kingmaker. For example, if a groundbreaking think piece appears in the Poughkeepsie Journal, it may just remain parochial wisdom, but if the same article appears in The Wall Street Journal, it has the potential to ignite a nation.

Arguably, the power behind the throne is about to make a paradigm shift in its focus to the digital arena. Television’s complete transfer to digital may not happen here until February 2009, but it has already started elsewhere with other developed countries such as Finland and Holland and certain analog channels in the UK have been shut down. Just as the Internet digital revolution was global, TV’s digital revolution will be worldwide, too. But will the United States’ digital TV move be a revolution or just a chaotic upheaval? That depends on a number of factors including: a) the inclination of consumers; b) the entrepreneurialism of the TV networks; and c) the customer focus of the cable service providers, or MSOs, to use the jargon.

We could describe consumers by the television equipment currently in their homes; analog cable, digital cable, satellite and analog aerials, popularly referred to as “rabbit ears” by many. Let’s call this last consumer group Rabbit Ears and examine them further.

According to Simmons, Rabbit Ears account for 20 percent of U.S. adults. As an overall demographic group, Rabbit Ears appear relatively downscale. They are 35 percent more likely than the national norm to have an annual household income below $50,000, 50 percent more likely to rent rather than own a property and about 40 percent more likely to belong to a racial minority. But to see Rabbit Ears in such simple terms would be to miss the point: This is a very diverse group.

Besides obvious groups such as single parents and elder citizens, multivariate analyses of Rabbit Ears reveals this group includes an above-average proportion of fit, stylish female students and well-to-do gentlemen. Imagine a consumer whose ranked top attitudinal statements include:  “Every season I buy the latest fashions,” “I often go out of my way to find a new store,” and “TV ads today are more enjoyable than ever.” To many it might sound like trendy younger consumers. But these are among the top statements resonating from Rabbit Ears.

According to Universal McCann’s proprietary study, “Media in Mind,” Rabbit Ears are the biggest consumers of the broadcast networks. It’s critical for the TV networks to hold on to this audience if they are to remain the kingmakers.

For the last half a century the main TV networks have been both exceptionally shrewd kings and kingmakers, with a string of media firsts that are the envy of the world. In as far as they are in control of their own destiny, they will ensure Rabbit Ears remain with them throughout this transition.

But what about the other analog consumer, the analog cable home, where the networks may rely on the cable service providers to deliver their product? I’ve read more than one ad-trade press article in the last six months that looks less than complimentary about MSO’s.

For instance, how many people were stopped in their tracks when Advertising Age’s Bob Garfield proclaimed “Comcast Must Die,” originally blogged in September 2007 ( It was a very powerful consumer blog — within a week 200 people posted comments and subsequently became a major feature of Advertising Age’s front page that November. And did you read Ed Martin on on October 25, 2007? He made for sobering reading on the price hikes that may await analog subscribers of Cablevision, when they transition to digital.

For the TV networks to be kingmakers, they need a kingdom of viewers. I wonder if the business model of the cable service providers encourages the MSOs to see it in the same way. If not, a power struggle might erupt in this media realm that not only upsets kings and kingmakers, but the ad industry as well.

Yet as we saw in the Comcast example, our digital age also spawns a new power player: the consumer. No one should expect the consumer to sit passively by while the digital TV revolution may well be a revolution in more ways than one.

Graeme Hutton is senior vice president and director of consumer insights at Universal McCann. (

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