Guest Commentary: Cable should get back to what cable does best

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The beauty of cable television is without question its endless programming choices-a wide-open playing field where different genres and formats can flourish.
In its early years cable offered “niche” channels designed to have their own distinct voices, separate from the broadcast monoliths. These networks spoke pointedly to the very core of an audience, appealing to their specific likes. Channels such as A&E, Comedy Central, Discovery, MTV, TNT and USA were born.
However, today many cable networks are trying to achieve the double-digit ratings and revenue growth they once enjoyed while trying to maximize the vertical integration strategies of their corporate parents. As a result many networks are forced into adopting an approach that goes against what once made them distinct.
Suddenly, these channels are becoming a resting ground for broadcast network reruns and “repurposed” programs. Multiplexing is nothing new, but viewers can do it just fine on their own with their VCR or PVR. And while short-term gains may abound for some networks, off-net and repurposed program hits are always few and far between and will only become exponentially more expensive as more networks compete for them.
Worse yet, reruns and repurposed programs can quickly get stale for viewers, and even worse for advertisers and cable operators. Advertisers that decide to buy time may be getting the same audience only with smaller ratings. Cable and satellite operators are paying for the same programming two, three and in some cases four times over. Even with some extraordinary original hits like “The Osbournes” and “The Shield,” these hosting services are forced to compete for the same general audience and traditional revenue model as the larger broadcast networks.
No doubt for the more established networks this is a revenue model that will always endure and many of us would be satisfied to have. However, it will always be susceptible to swings in the ad marketplace, and multiplexing will always be threatened by the ever-increasing customization tools available to viewers.
Peter Liguori, Larry Divney, Doug Herzog, Carole Black and the other men and women running these networks continue to do an extraordinary job in slicing their portion of the general entertainment pie under incredibly difficult market realities. They have earned and deserve our utmost respect.
But for growth opportunities and new revenue streams, viewers, cable and satellite operators and advertisers are finding their future is in category television services. Instead of a passive viewing experience that chases the same audience, these services capture viewers craving 100 percent original programming about categories that are integral to their daily lives. These networks provide usable information delivered in an entertaining way. And while in the beginning these channels started small, many, such as ESPN, CNN and our own Food Network, HGTV and DIY-Do It Yourself Network, have comparable ratings to their general entertainment peers. Everyday category television proves itself as an active resource in viewers’ lives.
More important, category television delivers prequalified viewers ready to be turned into consumers. Advertisers clearly see a valuable proposition from category television they can’t find in general entertainment. Category TV viewers find commercial messaging contextual and an enhancement, not intrusive. This messaging easily travels across different platforms, including Web and print created by that very category TV network. And cable and satellite operators, happy not to be paying for the same programming multiple times, can see an audience ready to turn from viewers into consumers through their digital and interactive technologies.
General entertainment will always lead the way in the traditional models, but category television-already flourishing in the traditional model-is beginning to tee up new revenue opportunities and represents the growth of media companies. Ask yourself: If you really are going to pay $50 to $100 per month for a subscription television service is it really to watch the third airing of “Law & Order”?
Category television gives viewers what they want, when they want-truly television they can use.
Charles Segars is senior VP of programming, production and network strategy at Fine Living.