Who is winning the war for the hearts and minds-and bulging wallets-of upscale cable-news viewers?
In an up-turning upfront, the true answer may be that all three general all-news networks-CNN , Fox News Channel and MSNBC-will win, each to its own particular standard.
All three say they expect revenue increases in this upfront, and all three expect it to be over by the Fourth of July weekend. It’s also true that all three expect this to be the upfront that levels the cable-news advertising playing field, with both Fox News and MSNBC making headway in closing the gap when it comes to the traditional CNN cost-per-thousand premium. (Agency and other estimates for the size of the CNN premium range from 15 percent to 200 percent.)
In household and other crucial ratings categories, Fox News has caught and surpassed CNN, its older rival, this year, but the conventional-wisdom calculus has been that while Fox is roping in the post-Sept. 11 news-hungry multitudes with its brand of confrontational talk and opinion, analysis and news, it’s CNN that retains the edge with up-market demos, specifically adults 25 to 54 making $75,000 and more per year and who are newly concerned about the daily news.
CNN points to its higher upscale audience concentration and touts targetability as well as reach; Fox News talks about sheer numbers, more eyeballs and frequency; MSNBC also talks audience composition and indexing and particularly touts its ultra-upscale numbers.
“Each network has its own story,” said Bob Flood, a senior buyer for Optimedia who buys cable news. “The whole dynamic is changing because of the number of players in cable news coupled with increased numbers on Fox, giving Fox the momentum in the marketplace.”
“Twenty-four hours, prime time, you name it,” said Paul Rittenberg, senior VP, advertising sales, Fox News. “We deliver more eyeballs in that [adults 25 to 54 making $75,000 and up] category.”
Mr. Rittenberg said their upfront goal is to “close the gap [with CNN] on CPMs-and to get the revenue that will recognize that our audience has more than doubled in the past year.” He anticipates getting high single-digit or low double-digit percent increases in CPMs this year.
CNN’s pitch focuses on its audience percentage of those viewers rather than on their numbers. “The new viewers we are getting are as upscale or more upscale than the old viewers we had,” said Larry Goodman, president, CNN sales and marketing. “In Fox’s case, the new viewers they’re getting are not necessarily as desirable as the old viewers they had.”
Mr. Goodman offered upscale-demo data for first-quarter 2002 that he compared with the same quarter a year before. That comparison shows CNN with higher audience concentrations of 25- to 54-year-olds than Fox News in the $50,000 and A-County viewer categories, and Fox News with higher audience concentrations of that demo in the $75,000-plus and $50,000-college-educated categories. Year to year, CNN has increased its audience concentration in all four demo categories, while Fox News has increased in two (A-County and $50,000-college-educated), he said.
Mr. Goodman predicted that CNN’s upfront dollars will be up at least 30 percent year to year.
MSNBC is telling advertisers this upfront that when it comes to really upscale viewers-those making $150,000 and more per year-it has the highest audience percentage of all three cable-news networks. “I don’t know that $75K is really that upscale,” said Seth Winter, VP, advertising sales, MSNBC. “We look at $150K. That’s where we have a distinct advantage.”
Mr. Winter is projecting “low- to mid-single-digit growth in CPMs” for MSNBC this year.