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Nielsen reported yesterday that ad spending on national cable networks has caught up to where their broadcast network brethren now stand.

That’s a big acknowledgement that the investments in programming and promotion that have been made by the content providers have shown an excellent return. Cable has always suffered the “little brother” syndrome in the TV business, but it’s clear that those days are history. Given that the upfront market is about to break for the coming TV season, this news can’t help but give cable sellers a little surge of pride as they request a bigger slice of the ad budget from the media buying community both nationally and locally.

Moving into local markets, there’s still work to be done to allow that catch-up with the local broadcasters. As anyone that has bought or sold local cable knows, the vast majority of ad dollars being placed on local systems tend to go to relatively few of the available networks. The usual suspects that take the great majority of the ad revenues include ESPN, USA, TBS, TNT, Fox News, CNN, etc.

About a month ago, RPA reported that the ratings for the Top 25 networks from September 2011 to mid-January 2012 had actually seen a downturn of about 2 percent in aggregate with C3 (Live plus three) numbers. The biggest hit in the C3’s landed on Viacom’s new nightmare, Nickelodeon, where the numbers dropped by nearly 30 percent. The remainder of the top 25 networks didn’t suffer erosion anywhere nearly as large and therefore will likely remain safely ensconced on media buyers’ lists for future ad buys.

Where cable networks gained ratings was at the mid-tier level. The local avails on these nets usually get filled by the wholesalers like Cross Media or by Direct Response advertisers as the audience numbers in these venues aren’t usually compelling enough to get local ad buyers to include them in schedules. The biggest gainers, according to RPA, were Food Network, Adult Swim and Discovery. I’m sure given all the interesting press surrounding the ongoing ratings and revenue shortcomings of OWN, this news about the upswing of the heritage network that put Discovery Communications on the map was likely more than a little welcome in an office building complex in Silver Spring, Maryland.

At a time when cable is organically getting a more sympathetic look from agency ad buyers and local businesses, it’s not a bad thing to suddenly find yourself with more salable inventory at your disposal. Removing wholesale advertisers and replacing them with retail-priced ads on several networks could provide yet another boost to what should be a decent ad sales uptick for MSOs in 2012.

There’s also a movement in place that will eventually unite the disparate ADS platforms into one local sales organization. The telcos moved here first after their efforts at establishing local sales forces didn’t bring the desired results. The major telco video providers, U-verse and FIOS, are now working in combination with MSO sales forces. As the satellite providers perfect their local insertion technology further, it will make as much sense for them to throw in with their bitter rivals in a show of co-opetition as it did for Verizon and AT&T. A combined local sales force selling these three platforms as one will be a greater force in local markets and provide more competition for local broadcast television stations.

Local sellers will have to make sure the process of combining and delivering accurate spot rotations across three different venues is as seamless as possible for this to work. Once that’s done, I believe it will be possible that local “cable” finally tops local broadcast television in the ad sales arena.

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