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Cable Campaigns for Election-Ad Dollars

Political-ad spending on cable, long expected to be a hefty contributor to MSO and interconnect sales, wasn't all that strong in the 2000 campaign's primary season.

And although MSO and interconnect executives have tempered their bullishness, they're still confident they will fare well by the time ballots are counted in November. Or, as Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over till it's over."

"We didn't see a windfall during the [campaign-2000] preliminaries," said Cox Communications Inc. vice president of ad sales Billy Farina.

The main lesson learned so far this year is that "we've got to get ahead of the curve with the media planners and buyers, to tell them our story sooner [in the planning process] than in the past," Farina added.

In the first quarter, "political didn't come to cable as much as we would have liked it to," Comcast Cable Communications senior vice president of ad sales Filemon Lopez said. "[But] there are a lot of races throughout the U.S."

Comcast will contact politicians' campaign strategists and ad agencies again to remind them of cable's benefits, Lopez said. National Cable Communications and various other MSOs and interconnects will also be calling, he added.

Given the category's disappointing results thus far, Cable One Inc. vice president of ad sales Ron Pancratz conceded that huge political dollars couldn't be expected through the rest of the campaign.

The main lesson learned from this year's efforts: "It reinforced [the idea that] local cable is local cable, and that local offices and issues are our bread and butter," he said. Anything that might come in from the presidential campaigns "would be a windfall," he added.

So far this year, national spot-cable dollars are running more than 40 percent over last year, said NCC CEO Tom Olson. That pace could accelerate if political-ad spending materializes this summer and fall, he added.

"Political has been disappointing across the board, for cable as well as broadcasters," Olson said. "The pattern this year has not been radically different than what has happened in the past," when clear-cut winners emerged early on in the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Extensive news-media coverage also helped put a lid on spending levels, he added.

"Closer to fall, spending will grow for the candidates and referendum issues," Olson said.

AT & T Broadband senior vice president of ad sales Judi Boyett Heady was one of the few execs bucking this gloomy view of the category.

"AT & T has done fairly well with issue advertising and congressional races" to date, she said. But presidential candidates are leaning more toward broad reach via broadcast television, Heady acknowledged.

The stakes for cable are big, as Cable News Network anchor Judy Woodruff reminded ad-sales executives at the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau's Cable Advertising Conference last March.

In her keynote address, Woodruff said political ad spending on cable should jump to $50 million this year from $4 million in 1988. Campaign spending on cable has more than doubled yearly since 1988, she added.

In that same time span, the competitive media landscape "has changed phenomenally" in terms of political coverage, she said. The "Big Three" broadcast networks-ABC, CBS and NBC-have cut back on their convention coverage and have "all but abandoned political coverage to cable," Woodruff said.

Cable's targetability and cost-efficiency are two areas that are pluses for politicos, two campaign consultants said at mid-April's CAB-sponsored "Cable Campaign Strategies 2000" conference.

Republican strategist Bruce Mentzner of Mentzner Media Services said he touted cable to a congressional candidate in the St. Louis area because broadcast-TV station time would "be very expensive and wasteful. About 50 cents of every dollar they would spend on St. Louis television would not be reaching anyone within the district that could vote."

He said the candidate bought ads on several cable systems in the area, targeting older news-oriented viewers of MSNBC, Cable News Network (Larry King Live and Inside Politics), Headline News and, for women voters, Lifetime Television's Intimate Portrait.

Mentzner's candidate spent $5,000 a week for a month-a sum that on local broadcast "would've bought us about 1.8 news spots," he noted.

In another House race in Pennsylvania, Mentzner said he again bought several cable systems reaching such areas as York County and Gettysburg. Here, Harrisburg-based broadcast-TV stations were deemed too costly and inefficient.

Instead, for this GOP primary candidate, he made local cable buys targeting voters aged 50-plus on A & E's Biography, CNN and others.

Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and History Channel are other networks that score well in qualitative and quantitative research on prospective voters, he noted. When studying research for ways to target GOP women voters recently, Mentzner found that Home & Garden Television scored surprisingly high.

Democratic consultant Joe Slade White of Joe Slade White & Co. praised cable's targeting and improved turnaround time. He said such networks as CNN Headline News have in-and-out viewership patterns that resemble those of all-news radio stations.

"I'd buy [those] as if I were buying radio," he said. "I'd buy volume, so that I'll be on six times [a day].so that I reach people."

Unlike non-political buyers that have urged operators to consolidate markets, White said politicians still want to get down to the grass-roots level in the search for votes.

"Even though there are interconnects, let me buy separate systems," he said.

Mentzner, who's handling New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's GOP Senate campaign, said politicians generally focus on "one big thing," or issue, to break through the clutter.

While most pols don't use "multitiered" campaigns-involving several spots that focus on separate issues-he figured "we'll be doing quite a bit of that" for Giuliani in the months ahead.

If so, some cable-ad executives hope the Giuliani camp-which so far has used cable sparingly, if at all, in upstate New York-will include them in its upcoming media mix.

"Cable has made improvements in our infrastructure to make it easier for you to place your candidate's message on cable programming," Kevin Barry, CAB vice president of local sales and marketing, told the political strategists.

Spelling out the details, Greater Washington Cable Interconnect general sales manager Pam Baratta said technical advances have made cable more attractive to candidates and other advertisers.

Both her interconnect and AdNex Detroit, the Motown interconnect also managed by NCC, are fiber-optic operations that offer clients 24-hour turnaround time for spots, versus two to three days on most other interconnects. The former Chicago Cable Interconnect, whose management shifted from NCC to AT & T Media Services in January, also employs fiber optics.

Under the market consolidation possible with interconnects, she said, "it's really one-stop shopping:" one call, one tape and one invoice. With one signal, the interconnect can also run a spot simultaneously throughout an entire market, she added.

"Enhanced picture quality" is just one of digital technology's benefits, she added.

NCC's implementation of EDI across more than 100 markets means that order entry and reconcilliation is faster, labor costs are reduced and paperwork is eventually eliminated, she added.

Democratic strategist White said he disliked watching one medium bash another. "The greatest thing about cable for us is the targeting," he said. However, he also emphasized, "Broadcast still works."

CAB research vice president Jonathan Sims told the conference audience of political strategists about some positive cable ratings trends.

He concluded on a diplomatic note: "Obviously, broadcast and cable are sharing the same television medium and it seems clear [from CAB's recall research so far] they are both very effective."

Citing Nielsen Media Research's homes-using-television data and adults 18-plus data in primetime for the 1999 final quarter through the 2000 first quarter, Sims said rising Internet-usage levels don't seem to be hurting overall TV viewership so far.

Since Internet households tend to be more upscale than the average, and thus view less TV, Web habits aren't eroding TV audiences.

Ad-supported network cable ratings are growing and eating away at the TV networks' audiences, he added.

"The [downward] trends are the same" for the Big Three's evening newscasts, he said. Basic-network cable, which isn't limited to one half-hour slot each day, now accounts for 57 percent of all news-program viewership for total day among adults, he said.

Pointing to CAB's recent unaided ad-recall study, released in April, Sims said cable viewers' commercial recall levels are virtually the same as those of broadcast viewers. He also cited other portions of the study, which indicate that basic-cable viewers pay about as much attention to shows as broadcast viewers.

Simmons Market Research Bureau president Howard Shimmel and senior account manager Michael Levine told the political strategists that Simmons' qualitative data can break out those viewers who are likely campaign contributors-and which cable networks they prefer to watch.