Guest Commentary – Change the Label: It Ain’t Just Cable

Apr 26, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When my grandmother referred to the refrigerator, she inevitably would call it the “icebox.” The term was a carryover from the days when food was stored in a wooden enclosure, its contents kept cold with daily supplies from an iceman who delivered door to door. Today there are still people around, not necessarily the age of my grandmother, who use the terms “icebox” and “refrigerator” interchangeably, even though they are two different things.
We are now at that same point with the word “cable”-it is a relic of an earlier era. In the beginning, almost everybody who watched a cable network like ESPN watched over a wired cable connection. Whether you were talking about the content or the delivery system, the same word sufficed: cable. But today significant numbers of those ESPN viewers are watching via an alternate delivery system, most of them via a direct broadcast satellite service.
The Federal Communications Commission refers to such content suppliers as ESPN not as “cable networks” but as multichannel video programming distributors, or MVPDs. In a Jan. 28 report on the industry, the commission said that while “10 years ago, cable operators served almost 100 percent of the nation’s subscribers … today, cable’s share has fallen to approximately 75 percent of all MVPD subscribers.”
The FCC figure is, of course, a national average; the figures vary wildly from market to market. As satellite delivery continues to grow, it seems only a matter of time before there will be markets that have crossed the 50 percent threshold and when more subscribers will be watching ESPN via satellite than via wired cable.

Nielsen terminology isn’t much help. The ratings service refers to television households receiving more than broadcast signals as “cable-plus-ADS homes,” which some could interpret as households with both wired cable and satellite service.
The situation has created confusion not just among the general public but among advertisers and their agencies as well. A local advertiser may think when his local ad is inserted inside a “cable” program on ESPN that it’s being seen by all local ESPN viewers-when in fact in a market like Springfield, Mo., nearly half those viewers aren’t seeing his ad at all. TVB and its member broadcast stations have been working hard to educate advertisers and agencies on this issue, but many people continue to be tripped up by the double meaning of “cable.”
What do we use as a substitute? Pay TV? Unfortunately, many people already use that term to refer to premium channels such as HBO; it could also be confused with pay-per-view. Broadcast-plus programming? A bit cumbersome. The FCC nomenclature gives us a clue to a solution. Multichannel video programming distributors is a mouthful, but the commission does refer to MVPD users as subscribers.
I vote for “subscription TV.” Programmers other than the broadcast networks should be known as subscriber networks. At the local level, a viewer can be known as a wired-cable subscriber or a satellite subscriber.
Why does it matter? In part because the world has changed so much the old words aren’t accurate anymore. Even more, because understanding the distinction between wired cable and satellite subscribers is vital to local advertisers.
So let the new words go forth. The icebox-and the iceman-has goneth and so should the outmoded term “cable.”
Chris Rohrs is president of the Television Bureau of Advertising.