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Nets Wrangle Over Demo Study

Jul 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Another round in the Battle of the Network Numbers was ignited by the release last week of a CBS media-buying study that concluded the adults 25 to 54 demographic is actually the “leading” buying demo among advertisers and media buyers.
CBS called its tally of 1,017 media buyers and planners the “largest media buying study in television” and touted the “surprising results” that shattered a “decades-long myth.”
That so-called myth is the conventional wisdom that advertisers are in hottest pursuit of younger demos, especially the adults 18 to 49 demo. Last season NBC led in that demo, Fox was in second place and ABC and CBS essentially tied for third.
Not surprisingly, CBS’s competitors took exception to both the study and its conclusions.
The CBS study found that the “25 to 54 demographic emerged [as] the leading age segment that advertisers target in their media plans, with 30 percent of the respondents specifying either adults, women or men 25 to 54 vs. just 21 percent specifying adults, women or men 18 to 49.” The study also noted that 58 percent of the respondents agreed with this statement: “The `aging’ of the population will have a significant effect on my media purchases.” Furthermore, the study found that “almost two-thirds of the respondents found the baby boom generation to be an extremely valuable target market vs. just 47 percent who chose generation X, the second-place finisher.”
The CBS study “conclusively demonstrates that the current singular focus on adults 18 to 49 in the [press] coverage of the television advertising market is resulting in a distorted view of the economics of that market,” David Poltrack, CBS executive VP, research and planning, said in a statement.
The CBS study was immediately-and hotly-contested by ABC, which questioned the online study’s methodology, and shot back with its own data contending that in the recent upfront, “far and away the main demographic purchased” in prime time was adults 18 to 49. “This demographic accounted for 53.6 percent of the six-network total dollars,” according to ABC.
Add in the even younger demos, the Alphabet Network continued, and the total rises to 68.2 percent of the dollars spent by advertisers on broadcast network prime time. According to ABC, adults 25 to 54, the demo that CBS most prizes, accounted for just 26.4 percent of the dollars spent in this year’s record-breaking upfront.
“The simple fact of the matter is that on a Monday through Sunday basis, 48 percent of their prime-time audience is 50-plus,” Mike Shaw, president, sales and marketing, ABC, said of the Eye Network. “You can’t monetize that audience. … Not enough brands are looking for that target.”
Mr. Shaw’s bottom line was that the CBS study is “like taking a voter poll after the election. We already have the results of the upfront.”
Jon Nesvig, president of advertising sales for Fox Broadcasting Co. put it this way: CBS is “employing the classic put-antlers-on-a-pig-and-call-it-a-reindeer strategy.”
For NBC’s senior researcher, the CBS study was just plain puzzling. “What I didn’t understand is this notion that there was a perception and then there’s this [other] reality, and this study demonstrated the reality,” said Alan Wurtzel, president, research and media development, NBC. Advertisers “wrote a check in the upfront based on 18 to 49. Now Dave [Poltrack is] trying to say, `But in this research they said something entirely different.’ I truly don’t understand why somebody would do that. Either you support what you wrote a check for or you’re going to write the check differently.”
Mr. Wurtzel also noted that older viewers are relatively easy to reach, while younger viewers, say 18 to 24, are “very fickle, very unstable in terms of loyalty, so advertisers obviously pay a premium.”
In the record-breaking 2003 upfront, NBC took in approximately $3 billion, followed by CBS with approximately $2.2 billion. ABC took in approximately $1.8 billion, while Fox did around $1.6 billion, according to reports.
CBS’s Mr. Poltrack told TelevisionWeek it is not NBC’s dominance in the 18 to 49 demo that accounted for its upfront total, but rather its first-place ranking in the 25 to 54 demo combined with its first-place ranking with upscale viewers making $75,000 or more a year that advertisers rewarded with their upfront checks. But NBC is a “leader who is fading,” Mr. Poltrack said. He “sees CBS coming up.”
Mr. Poltrack also noted that the emphasis on the 18 to 49 demo is an artifact of an earlier time, the 1960s and 1970s, when the baby boomers were first making their economic impact felt, while Mr. Wurtzel pointed to the overlap between the 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 demos, saying that modern technology and analysis meant that those demos could be subdivided into any demo that an advertiser cared to pursue.
The current Battle of the Network Numbers is reminiscent of the bitter sniping that broke out just a little over a year ago, following the 2002 upfront, when the Peacock Network, preening about how well it had done, offered “unassailable” numbers both for its own upfront total and the totals of its competitors. Of course, NBC’s competition, especially CBS, assailed those totals immediately.
This time around, the network debaters even parsed the 18 to 49 season rankings differently. CBS and ABC were tied for third in the demo, according to ABC, with each network scoring a 3.8 rating and a 10 share. Not so, said CBS, which claimed to have edged out ABC in the category when it came to regularly scheduled programming; if you exclude ABC’s airing of the Super Bowl, CBS earned a 3.9 rating to ABC’s 3.6 in the demo. ABC also argued that if sports programming and Oscar buys are added to its upfront totals, it, not CBS, would be in second place, with $2.4 billion, when it comes to upfront-period dollar commitments.
However, sports and the Academy Awards shouldn’t be aggregated with other prime-time upfront dollars, according to ABC’s competitors, because they are sold separately, outside the traditional upfront process.