Much like they do on the broadcast network news side, media buyers on behalf of advertiser clients who want to be in news buy, in most cases, all three of the cable news networks-Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN-as part of their upfront deals.
But ask those buyers how they see each of the networks and most will tell you that they buy Fox News Channel to reach a mass audience, while making buys on MSNBC and CNN to reach a smaller, but more upscale audience.
FNC averages 1.1 million viewers for total day, reaching the sixth highest audience among all cable networks, and 1.9 million in primetime, fifth among all cable nets. Given that its primetime audience is larger than MSNBC's and CNN's combined, mass makes sense.
But Mike Mandelker, FNC's VP of ad sales bristles at any contention that his network is not more upscale than his two competitors. "We have one of the most upscale audiences on cable," he says. "And our viewers are spenders, not savers."
Numbers of course can be presented in many ways to support positions and the other two cable news networks may dispute Mandelker's claims.
However, Fox News Channel points out that using Nielsen research data, looking at the 25-54 demo over a full day, the network average 124,000 viewers with incomes over $100,000, second in all of cable only to ESPN. In primetime, that number rises to 205,000, ranking FNC fourth among all cable networks.
Not to be outdone, MSNBC cites a 2010 MRI Cable Study, which states that its 25-54 viewers are more likely to be high ranking corporate executives like chairmen and CEOs.
MSNBC also points to a 2010 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey in which the news network has a higher percentage of 25-54 viewers with household incomes of more than $1 million than does FNC or CNN. In that survey, CNN also comes out higher than FNC.
And Greg D'Alba, CNN's EVP and COO of ad sales claims that his network "reaches more socially connected people," adding that "we're the number one source of news on social media sites."
D'Alba adds, "the currency for advertisers today is not just eyeballs [watching TV commercials], it's range. CNN is news content of choice by Facebook and Twitter users."
So, as the cable upfront buying period gets underway, let the sales pitches begin.
Clearly, as much as FNC's Mandelker wants to tout its upscale audience, he's also happy to tout its mass.
FNC's three primetime shows, The O'Reilly Factor (3 million viewers per night), Hannity (2.1 million) and On the Record with Greta VanSusteren (1.6 million) are the most watched of the cable news networks from 8-11 p.m. each weeknight.
And the Fox morning show, Fox and Friends, draws a million viewers each day, again more than the combined viewer total of MSNBC's Morning Joe Show with Joe Scarborough and CNN's American Morning.
MSNBC's primetime lineup features The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell (541,000 viewers), The Rachel Maddow Show (1.06 million) and The Ed Show (891,000), hosted by Ed Shultz.
CNN's primetime includes In the Arena with Eliot Spitzer (623,000 viewers), Piers Morgan Tonight (860,000) and Anderson Cooper 360 (872,000).
Mandelker, touting all of FNC's dayparts, crows that advertisers can buy Fox and Friends in the morning "at a lot cheaper rates then ABC's Good Morning America or NBC's Today show on broadcast." Of course the broadcast network morning shows also have several million more viewers, but he believes FNC can be a good way for advertisers to extend their reach.
MSNBC may run second to FNC in viewers, but the network has shown solid growth over the past year. Its overall primetime viewership is up 11% and its 25-54 viewers in primetime are up 12% a year to year.
John Kelly, SVP, NBC News network sales, says MSNBC has taken in more ad revenue in the upfronts during each of the past three years, and he is expecting another record upfront take this year.
Dave Barrington, who oversees ad sales at MSNBC, adds that the network will be selling the quality of its audience to advertisers. "We are reaching the leaders in the country," he says. "It's not how many viewers we reach, but who they are."
Kelly adds that the number of viewers doesn't necessarily correlate with advertiser demand. "We have as much demand for our Morning Joe show as we do for our primetime shows."
The departure of the controversial Keith Olbermann as host of Countdown in primetime has not hurt ratings as some might have thought, with O'Donnell, who has replaced Olbermann, pulling in only a few thousand fewer viewers a night. And Kelly calls Maddow, who has boosted her audience to more than 1 million viewers per night, "a rock star" for the network in primetime.
While FNC's sister Fox broadcast network does not have its own separate news organization or evening news, MSNBC has NBC News, and Kelly says in the upfront the cable network will more than likely do some combined deals with advertisers spending across both Today, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and assorted MSNBC shows.
Kelly adds that MSNBC has grown in stature on more advertiser's radars over the past three years. "Before that, many clients were buying just Fox News and CNN," he says. "Now just about every ad buy not only includes us, but we are at a point where we're trying to get more dollars out of our existing advertisers."
CNN is seen as the network where the most viewers go when there is major news breaking, as was seen with the death of Osama bin Laden. According to Nielsen data, when news broke of his death on the night of May 1, coverage from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on CNN drew 4.1 million viewers, including 2.1 million persons 25-54, up 981% and 1434%, respectively, over the prior four Sundays.
That same night, FNC drew 2.8 million total viewers and 1.2 million 25-54, while MSNBC drew 1.5 million viewers and 800,000 in the demo. At its peak that night, CNN was drawing 9.5 million viewers, considerably more than its news competitors.
Executives for both FNC and MSNBC argue that while CNN gets the greatest viewer boost from breaking news events, it's hard for the network to monetize that with advertising because there is no telling when the events will happen in order to sell ads in advance.
But CNN retorts that when that many viewers come to the network, many of them come back down the road to continue watching the network's regular programming and in the longer term the network benefits with more ad dollars.
As evidence, ratings of Morgan's show in May, which replaced Larry King at the start of this year, are up 69 per cent, D'Alba says, and Cooper's May ratings are 114 percent higher, lending credence to the theory that viewers who watched CNN for Osama bin Laden news continued to stay tuned through the month.
And since Kathleen Parker left the primetime Parker/Spitzer show in February and the show repremiered as In the Arena with Eliot Spitzer, viewership is up 72 percent in the 25-54 demo.
"We are seen as the world news leader and we have proven to be a reliable and trusted source of news," D'Alba says, adding that most of the network's deals include multi-platform advertising.
"We sell television, online and mobile to advertisers," he says. "We have 80 million unique users on our digital site. We are offering CNN content to consumers on multiple platforms and our ad revenue is growing accordingly because of our reach and range, not just from TV viewers alone."
All of the cable news networks are expecting a big influx of ad dollars in the coming upfront from political advertising with the 2012 presidential and Congressional elections on the horizon. They also expect a lot of new ad dollars from advocacy groups.
D'Alba says CNN is also anticipating more advertising from the energy category, including oil companies. And CNN is planning on selling sponsorship to its various election shows and ongoing specials.
Other staple ad categories for the cable news networks include pharmaceuticals, automotive and financial.
While CNN expects to sell more inventory in this upfront than last year, FNC's Mandelker believes his network may only sell the usual 40 percent. "While the broadcast networks sell 75 to 80 percent of their inventory in the upfront, we sell much less. We're not afraid to hold inventory back. The upfront doesn't make or break us. There are a lot of things going on during the year and we have no problem selling the inventory we hold back," he says.
Kelly says that along with the traditional ad categories that buy news, MSNBC also gets a lot of tech category advertising such as wireless and IT services, office supply companies and delivery services.
Much like Mandelker, Kelly says MSNBC will sell up to 45 percent of its ad inventory. "Our goal in the upfront is to just lay a foundation," he says.
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