Editorial: A victory for cable

Back in the early 1980s, when new cable services were beginning to spring up across North America, television was still a fairly simple medium....
October 1, 1997

Back in the early 1980s, when new cable services were beginning to spring up across North America, television was still a fairly simple medium.

A scattering of new cable-delivered programming alternatives, mostly serving either narrow viewing interests or local community concerns, were beginning to show up on the TV listings charts. But they were, if viewed at all, seen as at best a minor sideshow in the shadow of the massive draw of the seemingly unassailable broadcast networks. Cable was small, niche-oriented, mostly urban and low in production value. Network was The Big Show with the big money, the glamorous looks and the big audienceÑthe one reality that mattered most to mass-market advertisers of that era.

It is significant, symbolically if nothing else, that a decade and a half later, one of these cable services is able to say that it has become the number one television service in a head-to-head battle against the traditional broadcast networks.

There are many qualifiers to Nickelodeon’s claim as ‘the highest-rated kids programmer,’ as outlined in a story on page 26 of this issue.

First, this is a battle only within a demographicÑkidsÑand not the bigger fight of a mass audience. Next, as Nickelodeon’s closest network competitor, Fox Kids Network, points out, Nickelodeon has programming on all day long including prime time, whereas Fox Kids programs to kids only 19 hours per week. So yes, Nickelodeon can rightly claim to be number one with kids for the moment, but as a senior Fox Kids executive points out, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Again, it’s probably the symbolism and the emotions of the moment that matter most. Nickelodeon’s triumphant claim is akin to one of those occasions when a perennial underdog finally manages to turn the tables on a long immovable opponent.

And yet, beyond the thrill of the moment, there are also important lessons to be learned. In this case, it is a textbook illustration of strategic brand building.

The story of the Nickelodeon brand’s steady march into the psyche of its kid audience begins and ends with an attitude and a distinct personality that permeates everything the cable service does. A visitor cannot help but sense this in the informal and playful atmosphere of Nickelodeon’s Broadway headquarters. The same consistent feeling gets transmitted to Nick’s audience in the programming, obviously, but also through every other opportunity as well, whether it’s a promotion, a logo, an interstitial or a segue from one show to another. Even the name, itself. Nickelodeon oozes ‘kids’ from every pore.

In broadcasting, the phenomenon has been described as ‘appointment television.’ Kids don’t so much select individual shows from the Nickelodeon channel, as they do make an appointment to visit with their clearly differentiated Nick ‘buddy.’

Cable services have known from the time they came on stream the necessity of standing out in a cluttered environment. The years of experience have obviously paid off.

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