Cable Thrives in Hard Times

May 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Sheree R. Curry

Special to TelevisionWeek

Though Portland, Ore.’s high unemployment rate has been a drag on local ad sales, agency executives said cable’s ability to pinpoint and target specific audiences, along with Comcast’s strong, highly visible sales team, have helped cable become a more important part of media buys.

“Because we have a higher unemployment rate than a lot of other states, there is a lot more caution here as to where and when [advertisers] spend their dollars,” said Marla Jackson, media director for Portland agency Charlton Engel Marketing.

Ms. Jackson said broadcast television is cable’s strongest competition but can’t match cable’s ability to zero in on niche audiences. “A retail business on the east side can narrow it down to buying in the east zone and niche down to personal habits and interest,” she said. “From the advertising agency point of view, cable is no longer looked at as the poor stepsister. It is more of an integral part [of media-buying strategies] as cable subscriptions continue to go up.”

Cable penetration for Portland, the nation’s 24th-ranked market, sits at 58 percent and covers more than 50,000-square miles. The majority of cable homes, more than 500,000, subscribe to Comcast, while the remainder-at least until the ink dries on Adelphia’s sale to Time Warner and Comcast-are served by Charter and Adelphia Communications. Comcast operates the interconnect, which has nearly 635,000 subscribers.

The interconnect last year hired a field marketing manager who concentrates on business development at the regional and national level to “determine the needs of advertisers,” said Maureen Fisher, VP and general manager of Comcast Spotlight Portland, the cable company’s ad sales arm.

Ms. Fisher came on board as general manager in December 2004 and was quickly honored by the Portland Business Journal with a 2005 Orchid Award for being one of the Portland area’s top 25 women in business.

A successful marketing strategy she pointed to is the company’s Partners Program, a series of seminars held over the course of a week in January that targets small and midsize business owners. “We brought [10 to 20 clients in at a time] for 45-minute seminars and discussed basic marketing and how cable can help them improve their bottom line and move their various products,” she said.

About 20 such seminars were held in Portland, Salem and Eugene, Ore. After the main talk, the groups were broken down even further so that advertisers could discuss their needs and concerns with account executives or sales managers. The sales teams then explained the various cable packages, including two targeting the general demographic, as well as a sports package that targeted men and a news package.

Within about a three-week period after the seminars, Comcast had partnered with 60-plus advertisers and generated about $750,000 in ad revenue. “Our field marketing efforts are proving to be very successful,” Ms. Fisher said.

Ms. Fisher said some of the cable giant’s products make local sales more attractive to advertisers. She cited video-on-demand and the Web site Comcast.net, a consumer portal for the company’s more than 7 million high-speed internet subscribers, as examples. The Web site is attractive to advertisers because it can be used creatively in cross-promotions.

Comcast’s effort to attract Portland advertisers has been an uphill climb. Though the state’s unemployment rate is now at its lowest point in years, having seen a slight improvement from 6.9 percent to 6.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it still is well above the national rate, which remains steady at 5.2 percent.

“It affects how [consumers] buy cars and furnish their homes,” Ms. Fisher said.

Despite some of cable’s advantages to advertisers, its ratings pale compared with broadcast, ad industry experts said. Cable advertising is less expensive than broadcast on a cost-per-spot basis, but the two charge roughly the same on a cost-per-point basis.

Ms. Fisher said that though broadcast TV is her biggest competition, “I don’t want to turn my back on anybody-not newspaper or radio or direct mail.”