Time Warner yesterday announced some weak quarterly financials, with earnings off 26 percent. But there was a big bright spot, the media conglomerate's cable networks like HBO and CNN, where profits were up 18 percent, led by advertising gains. There's a similar situation at NBC Universal, where ratings gains at Bravo (Runway, Top Chef), MSNBC (Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews) and even the USA Network have formed a thick silver lining around the storm cloud that is the flagship broadcast network. The business-side gains add a financial dimension to the cable industry's creative golden age, described by the Times' David Carr in June and obvious to anyone with a smartly programmed DVR or Netflix queue. Cable is the swaggering golden child of television, and it's only going to get more confident, because the advertising model that's fueling all its fun happens to be perfect for a recession.
Once confined to HBO and then Showtime, top-shelf programming has spread to smaller networks like AMC, home to Mad Men, and even Lifetime, future host to Runway. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, with their fake news shows, have a level of influence that meets and even, at times, exceeds that of the broadcast news anchors.
As this process continues and even smaller networks come up with distinctive hits that grow their audiences — think TNT, FX, Sci Fi and the Food Network — cable will have achieved something of an advertiser's holy grail: Narrow targeting combined with deep reach, something never really possible on broadcast television and still being tinkered with online. The efficiency of advertising on these networks, by the way, happens to be quite attractive when you economy is slowly melting.
The cable boom will be pretty glorious, at least until advertisers wise up about how many viewers are digitally skipping right over their commercials, at which point product placement will poison all that creative fun, and everyone will be sad until the Sex And The City of iTunes comes along and moves the fun to yet another medium.
(Photo: Rick on Flickr)