Cristina Merrill

Big wins for PR in cable game - When it comes to accessibility, cost and niche, cable TV is fast becoming a key player for PR pros. Cristina Merrill explains the rules of this profitable game.

Try selling Today on the virtues of your client, a relatively unknown but respected and photogenic attorney. Chances are that the popular morning show's hot shot producer won't even call you back.

But a cable producer will. CourtTV, for example, makes a full-time living out of legal coverage, churning out dozens of shows featuring all kinds of legal talking heads. All you need is a client who is intelligent and opinionated enough to fit a certain topic, and a savvy public relations executive who understands how to play the cable advantage in a game where the stakes are hot, high and coveted.

What's the score?
Cable has been a clear beneficiary of the exponential fragmentation in the media market place. As media choices have exploded to unprecedented levels, the so-called 'Big Networks' have lost their reign on viewership.

The 90%market share that NBC, CBS and ABC used to command, as little as a decade ago, has been cut by a third, as a result of the growing popularity of cable. During the 1995-1996 season alone, Americans spent almost 24 hours weekly watching cable, an increase of 80% in eight years, according to figures released by the Cable Advertising Bureau.

The big money has followed cable's growing popularity. More than $6.8 billion of ad revenue poured into cable's coffers last year, which represents a 170% jump since 1990. Cable can now count among its exclusive advertisers, such prominent marketers as Dell Computer, the National Basketball Association and Allied Domecq.

The prestige that comes with having a client featured in a network segment still compels public relations execs to spend hours on the phone, trying to sweet talk even the lowliest of network production assistants. Media buyers will be the first to tell you that most clients still prefer to run their ads on network big hitters, like Friends or 60 Minutes, even if a 30 second spot could wipe out half a client's marketing budget, or the show's audience is dead wrong for the ad. For those public relations folks whose clients' motto is 'the more impressions the better,' a hit on Today could mean 5 million impressions, compared to Bronxnet's 250,000 - thus more bang for less work.

But cable converts will tell you that cable is cheaper, nimbler and hungrier.

Also, its accessibility, great variety of content and targetability make cable an ideal pitching vehicle. The myriad of shows and segments, on the more than 75 ad-supported cable networks, are in constant need of guests and ideas, which is music to a PR pro's ears.

No longer the minor leagues
Lonnie Soury, formerly a senior VP at Rubinstein Associates, and now of Soury Communications, has dealt with cable networks for a decade. His experience has taught him that the producers who line up speakers for the cable shows tend to be more accessible and more willing to take chances.

In addition, cable network producers aren't bound in the same way as broadcast network producers to use contract speakers. As a result, he has had success in working with cable producers in placing stories and getting his clients to warm up to cable.

'Clients are increasingly comfortable with appearing on cable networks and realizing it's no longer the minor leagues,' Soury says. For example, client placements in specialized shows such as Pinnacle, CNN's show featuring chief executives, are becoming quite prestigious and are worth a lot of impressions. Tapes from Pinnacle then can be used repeatedly as public relations tools.

Kent Holland, a vice president with Andrew P. Plesser Associates, a New York-based public relations firm, is in the midst of pitching a book co-authored by Malcolm X's sister and nephew, called Seventh Child.

'Obviously, Today would be ideal,' he notes, 'but BET (Black Entertainment Television) is also an excellent choice because of its demographics.'

Holland and others list CNN, CNNfn, CNBC, TV Food Network, MSNBC, ESPN, and the Fox News Channel, as favorites. And those are only a few of the networks Holland will call for such big clients like The Estee Lauder Companies, Henry Holt, and Ziff Davis.

Other popular networks are A&E, Discovery, History, TBS, and TNT (see sidebars above and on p18).

'Media choices are exploding,' Holland says. 'And while we're living in a boom time for public relations, it's getting more challenging to be heard.'

How to pitch
That is why, executives say, it pays to keep current with changes in the media industry and to know when, whom and how to pitch cable.

For starters, get to know all of the producers. 'Every day producers are looking for dynamic, intelligent people to fill up their time,' Soury says. With the sheer number of TV shows appearing on cable TV, it's apparent that somewhere, someone will be delighted to host your client.

For those still puzzled by the overwhelming options of the media universe, experts recommend several of Chicago publisher Bacon's informational guides, especially Bacon's annual TV/Cable directory, and its various publicity guides. Both books list hundreds of cable shows, complete with program descriptions, producer names, phone numbers and in some cases, e-mail addresses.

Don Middleberg, chairman and chief executive officer of public relations agency Middleberg + Associates, emphasizes the importance of using the Internet for pitching stories. Many of the cable channels publish online magazines or 'e-zines,' which he says are also accessible and more willing to take story suggestions. Many World Wide Web stories end up as news segments on the cable networks.

'The idea is that PR has added a new leg to the triangle,' Middleberg notes. 'Good public relations firms must incorporate online as part of their pitching process.' Together with Columbia University professor Steve Ross, Middleberg has been looking at the online phenomenon for four years.

Their 1997 Media in Cyberspace Study, for example, states that 93% of journalists use online services and almost a third prefer online submissions to paper submissions.

The study goes on to say that increased competition in media will create more opportunities for cable and other news media to expand on stories originated on the Internet. Among the web sites that the study's respondents favor are CNN, ESPN's Sportszone and MSNBC.

But while cable's content choices can be a boon to public relations mavens, too much choice can detract from it. For a client's 50th anniversary celebration a few weeks back, Soury invited several of his cable sources to the event.

Many came, bringing along uninvited guests. 'I learned quickly that every cable show has a TV camera,' he says. 'We got calls from stations we never knew existed. You really have to be discreet.'

But then again, Soury, who never met a journalist he didn't like, says it makes good practice to nurture cable reporters. 'The young reporter (working for cable) today could end up as the editor of The New York Times some day.' Spoken like a true PR man.

Cable networks: what the rankings mean
The top 10 cable rankings, according to Nielsen Media Research figures, show the public's interest not just in niche offerings, such as children's service Nickelodeon, but also in general interest channels which reflect the broadcast network's wide-ranging schedule.

Cable channels such as USA Networks, TNT and TBS air a mix of sports, movies and mini series, though specific interest services such as sports station ESPN and news channel CNN also figure prominently in the primetime top 10.

Some surprising viewer choices make the top twenty ranking with TNN (The Nashville Network) ranking 16th with Homes and Garden's TV, ahead of youth music trendsetter MTV at 19.

The daytime rankings reveal a different picture with Viacom-backed Nickelodeon out in front of the pack bringing in 1,078,000 households for the week from October 26 to November 1. Turner/Time Warner-owned Cartoon Network also figures higher up the daytime list at number 4 with 514,000 households.

Obviously, these children-targeted channels will have more viewers during the day than at night.


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