It’s no secret that the advertising market is tough. Really tough. Like put-your-hand-into-the-meat-grinder tough. But it’s often in these most trying of times that people find their strength and purpose. As the TV upfront process starts to wrap itself up, reports are that cable networks fared relatively well considering the gloom-and-doom, Great Depression-goading mentality pulsating from the government, the media and several other quarters. Yes, times are tough. But the cable industry is pulling through based on strong original programming, loyal audiences and, perhaps most importantly, institutional fortitude stemming from its reliance on a dual revenue stream. Advertisers have plenty of leverage these days. But the truth is that they have less leverage with cable networks than they do with broadcasters. And that’s because broadcasters are wholly, 100-percent dependent on advertisers. While it’s a challenging market for everybody, cable networks are poised to pull through this much stronger than when this economic crisis began.
Of course, this remains very much a buyer’s market. Advertisers have enormous power to ask for and receive much of what they want. It’s times like these that test everyone’s wills—and more importantly, force any ad-supported content owners to decide what altar upon which they worship: That of the content consumers, or of the content advertisers. Sure, both are important. But with the notable exception of premium channels (wow, what a business), most cable networks would be in serious trouble if they had to rely wholly on subscription revenue.
But cable networks must be careful not to worship at one altar at the expense of the other. Placing too much emphasis on advertisers risks alienating audiences that are the only reason those advertisers are buying time in the first place. Some argue that networks long ago started cramming too many commercial pods into programs. The result was viewer frustration that TiVo and other DVR devices gladly exploited with gusto. Too many product placements or endless endorsements can have a similar effect. People just stop watching or figure out ways to watch something else. With Canoe Ventures and the advance of addressability technology, cable operators and programmers are entering a new era in which they can provide extremely specific information to advertisers about their viewers. Could all of this go too far? Could it eventually lead to a privacy blowback and widespread viewer backlash? Sure. It all depends on how respectfully it’s implemented. And how much operators and networks want to push the envelope in search of advertising dollars. Remember, it’s tough out there.
At the end of the day, TV is about entertainment. It’s about taking your audience to another world—one where they can forget about their jobs, problems and other real-world concerns for just a little while. This audience understands that advertising pays the freight. They get it. They’re willing to consume advertising messages, and in some cases even welcome the opportunity to get useful information about a product they really want or need (Who among us hasn’t been sucked into an infomercial and pulled the trigger? Oh c’mon. Don’t lie to me!). But everyone needs to think long term and show a bit of restraint in the interest of the audience. During this economic slump, advertisers need to resist the urge to overreach, and cable nets need to resist the urge to give into every demand. And at some point in the future, when the economy inevitable goes into boom mode again, cable networks need to show the same kind of restraint when it comes to their advertising partners. It’s really all about respecting that audience. No one should ever forget that the viewers are the ones who make this whole thing work.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX Daily).