NCC's Tim Kay: The Case for Keeping Cable in Your Political Media Buy

November 5, 2015 Tim Kay

I recently heard a political consultant say, “Cable is too expensive and it doesn’t work,” when explaining why they weren’t including cable in their campaign’s media mix. After some back and forth, it became evident this assumption was based on an outdated notion that broadcast television still dominates political advertising.

The “broadcast television only strategy”—for lack of a better phrase—might have been effective when media was simple and the rule to reach voters was more easily defined. But its fundamental flaw is that media has changed dramatically and to not buy cable in 2011 is equivalent to not buying online in 2011.

Your campaign should be doing both.

No medium can stand alone and independently move voters any longer because consumption occurs across multiple screens. So any strategist who definitely rules out a particular mode of media outreach is irresponsible. Cable works in conjunction with broadcast, expanding reach into target audiences.

In 2010, 12.4 million political commercials were run. A full 68 percent of them were run on local cable. Only 3.4 million were run on local broadcast. If cable doesn’t work or it’s too expensive why are 68 percent of commercials run on niche targeted networks despite garnering just 20 percent of the revenue?

Nielsen Media Research estimates over 90 percent of American homes receive television from cable or satellite. The individual reach of a broadcast station is below 66 percent in the top 10 markets. In Chicago, the dominant ABC affiliate barely reaches over 60 percent of the market. Cable has 57 percent reach on just a quarter of the networks.

Leaving cable off a media buy is like not placing an order on ABC or NBC. Each station or network delivers a particular audience, it is not an either/or proposition when the viewing audience is spread across 50 channels. To effectively capture audiences, campaigns must be across an average of 18 networks that reflect how people are consuming media.

Lastly, a note on pricing: It should be evaluated on a station by station basis for strength and weakness just like any other medium. But consultants need to be representing the cost in the most accurate way.

Television prices differ depending on the time of day—primetime is more expensive than daytime. Confusion arises when broadcast pricing, which is often based on a blended cost per point, is compared to cable pricing, which only includes the most expensive time period.

It’s a faulty comparison and it can give the impression that cable is too expensive. It’s the equivalent of giving a restaurant customer a dinner menu at lunch. The cable industry has always been competitive on price to the marketplace.

The worth and effectiveness of cable is its ability to demographically and geographically target networks. Just buying Fox News prime is similar to just buying “60 Minutes” on CBS, it’s going to be expensive and not very effective. But if you bought other networks or time periods such as early morning and early news, it would bring the cost of “60 Minutes” into a manageable cost-per-point.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, people do watch cable all day. That’s evident in just about any office in Washington D.C.

Ultimately, when evaluating any medium, it’s important to follow the same rules. In this new digital age, we know more than ever about voters yet we still blindly saturate a marketplace to reach an arbitrary gross rating point goal. Why?

The reality is that cable is the best tool to target voters in a district or state on relevant networks at a competitive price. Not many other mediums can say the same.

Tim Kay is the director of political strategy for NCC Media.  


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NCC's Tim Kay: Political Advertising and the TV Efficiency Revolution
NCC's Tim Kay: Political Advertising and the TV Efficiency Revolution


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