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Cable Industry Lobbies For Larger Share Of Political Ad Campaigns
By Bob Cusack

Eyeing what has become a billion-dollar business, the cable industry has mounted a major campaign to siphon political advertising money away from the major television networks. In 2002, the major networks received 93 percent of the money candidates paid for television ads.

Cable industry executives are making the argument that more people are watching cable. They commissioned a study, which highlights that cable — not the major networks — has become the major source of election news. The industry is working with Target Media Networks to make its case to political candidates. The cable companies that have joined forces on this initiative are Comcast, Cox and Time Warner.

Fortune said more political consultants now are seeing the benefits of targeted cable ads. "I’ve seen a big change. The research shows more people are watching cable."

Their main message is that cable can help candidates target voters better than the major networks. While the networks still get the largest overall ratings, the cable industry believes that more politically active voters are watching CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. Research floated by the industry shows that many voters watch other cable networks, such as ESPN, The Weather Channel and Lifetime.

Industry lobbyists say cable enables campaigns to home in on voters of all age groups, sexes, income levels and ethnicities. Stephen Cunningham, chairman and co-founder of Target Media Networks, said cheaper-than-network cable rates will allow some candidates to reserve half-hour blocs to pitch their message. "Reaching voters in a 30-second ad is difficult," he said.

Buying a half-hour on a cable channel will give candidates the time to lay out their agenda at a fraction of the cost that Ross Perot paid when he reserved time on television networks, Cunningham added. The effort to persuade candidates to spend more money on cable could be lucrative for the industry. Last year, candidates spent about $1.1 billion on television ads, and in 2004, that figure is expected to jump to more than $1.5 billion.

The cable industry’s endeavor is bipartisan. It is working with Republican consultant Doug Goodyear with the Washington-based DCI Group and Democratic consultant Michael Stratton, co-director of the 1993 Presidential Inauguration Committee. In previous elections, some campaigns were frustrated that cable systems could not accommodate their specific advertising strategies.

Cunningham said the cable industry has restructured to make itself more flexible when it comes to the demands of political campaigns. Stratton said the industry knows it has some technical issues that need to be ironed out. "We’re not there yet," he said. Advertising on network television also has its limitations. Stratton said that certain states — such as New Hampshire — do not have affiliates from all the major networks broadcasting from within state borders. Therefore, candidates who want their message to reach people in New Hampshire often have to pay for ads that are seen in neighboring states.

Cunningham said that when New Hampshire-targeted ads are placed on network affiliates, as much as 85 percent of the audience often does not live in the state. WMUR-TV does broadcast from Manchester, but some other stations seen in the state originate in Boston. But Comcast, a cable carrier in New Hampshire, has set up a system in which a cable ad reaches its intended audience: New Hampshire voters.

Over the past couple of months, Stratton and Cunningham have been reaching out to the Democratic candidates for president. They say that Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has been receptive to their pitch. A media consultant working for Lieberman could not be reached for comment at press time. Meanwhile, the DCI Group has contacted President Bush’s re-election team to make its case about the merits of advertising on cable. Cable executives stressed that their initiative also is aimed at candidates running for Congress.

Ondine Fortune, president of Fortune Media, a company that places campaign ads, said the switch from major networks to cable "is going to take some time." When Fortune was making the case for cable a couple of years ago, some campaigns countered that the highest-rated show on cable was the children’s show "Rugrats" — not exactly the best show on which to place a political ad. But Fortune said more political consultants now are seeing the benefits of targeted cable ads. "I’ve seen a big change. The research shows more people are watching cable." The reason that the potential sea change has been slow is because "a lot of consultants are used to doing things a certain way," Fortune added.

Political candidates, who call the shots on media campaigns, also have been hesitant. Fortune said, "Some candidates say, ‘I don’t watch Fox News, so I don’t want to be on Fox News.’" That thinking can be shortsighted because many voters from both parties watch Fox News, she said.
Overall, the cable industry believes it will fill a niche.

"Cable TV is grassroots TV," Stratton said.

© 2003 The Hill

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