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Are Successful Original Cable Shows Marginalizing DR?

30 Sep, 2009 By: Steven Chester Response This Week

If you were to imagine a graph that showed viewership for the summer months on broadcast and cable networks that feature original series, what would it look like? The answer would be a giant X. During the summer months, viewers are leaving broadcast to go to networks like USA, Food Network and TNT – due to the amount of original and outstanding programming.

If you focus on the four major broadcast networks, you will see a very steady downward trend during June, July and August. Broadcast is losing more and more viewers. NBC’s numbers during the 2008 Olympics have to be discounted due to the huge 70-percent boost the network received. If you actually graph these numbers for the four networks during the past four years – rather just imagining what one might look like – it is very clear that broadcasters are headed to the southeast point on the X, while the three cable nets mentioned, as well as others, are all headed to the northeast point. Any other network with original programs like Damages on FX or My Boys on TBS is likely to score similarly.

After ABC passed on the show Monk in 2001, USA Network picked it up and began something that would change television forever. There had been cable originals before Monk, but none had been as widely successful. The show found a huge fan base, almost a cult-like following, for several years. Then in 2005, TNT introduced an original of its own, and history was made once again. At the time, the premiere of The Closer was the highest rated scripted cable telecast of all time. The cable networks caught on, and within two years there were dozens of original scripted shows on cable.

While this is a positive for the cable networks, what does it mean for direct response? It means that as viewership slowly increases on cable, rates will increase as well. After all, if more people watch, cable networks know they can get more for their advertising real estate. In addition to the rates on the dayparts these originals run in, the surrounding daypart rates will likewise be affected. When a network skyrockets in its prime rates, you can be sure that late fringe is soon to follow. It’s only natural that some viewers will stick around to see what’s on next after the program they tuned in for.

Rising rates in no way correlates to response, and the past three years reflect that. Since 2007, there has been a more than 20-percent drop in summer response rates each year – and the trend does not appear to be changing. There was a huge 26-percent drop in response during the summer months of 2009.

So at what point will DR be priced out of these networks? As more and more cable networks move to original programming, they seem to be following a script: get better original programming; increase viewership; and increase advertising rates to reflect new viewership levels. Eventually they will price out many of their DR advertisers and be left with surplus inventory available to general advertisers.

With many broadcast networks not working with 120-second spots during prime, is DR left somewhere in the middle? If broadcasters stick with their reluctance to accept DR spots, and the prices for desirable dayparts on cable go above the DR threshold, where will DR advertisers go for their inventory? They will be forced to seek out lesser-viewed dayparts and response may fall further.

There will likely be advertisers who pick up the slack that DR might leave, so the cable nets may not feel any of the loss. Broadcast’s loss may well equal cable’s gain, but DR may be the one hurt the most in the long run.

Steven Chester is a media analyst at Lockard & Wechsler Direct in Irvington, N.Y. He can be reached at

About the Author: Steven Chester

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