The debate is over, or should be, MoffettNathanson Research's Michael Nathanson says this morning: Advertisers are shifting spending to online video at the expense of traditional TV programming that isn't "essential" -- meaning live sports and events, hit scripted shows, and cable shows that appeal to hard-to-reach audiences. Even with a flood of political ads coming over the next few months, Nathanson just lowered his 2014 ad forecast for national broadcast TV to +2% from +5%, and for national cable to +5% from +6%.
Many media CEOs dismissed the weak ad trends in the first half of this year, blaming the Winter Olympics in Q1 or the World Cup, which peaked in July during Q3. CBS chief Les Moonves, for one, said that he's “now seeing pacing improve significantly here in Q3, both nationally and locally, and Q4 will be even better than Q3.” The industry view is that traditional TV ad sales will pick up again as Nielsen improves its ability to measure online viewers. In June RBC Capital Markets’ David Bank also downplayed the digital threat, noting that only about 16% of the online video ad inventory accompanies content that would be suitable for a network TV advertiser.
But Nathanson says that he was "shocked" to see that online accounted for 98% of the growth in total ad spending in Q2 vs the period last year. "This is the largest contribution to growth since 2008 when online was growing in the face of a declining traditional ad market." Ad spending for broadcast TV fell 4.7% in Q2 which reveals "the weak underlying non-sport advertising trends," he says. While cable networks were up 3.6%, "only Disney ended up beating our estimates thanks in part to the strength of the World Cup on ESPN."
Some of the recent weakness was due to Hollywood itself: Faced with anemic summer box office sales "film studios have kept a tighter leash on marketing spend," the analyst says. The number of movie-related spots was down 10% in June and 24% in July, according to TiVo data.
Still, Nathanson says that execs should expect "a continued shift in TV [ad] budgets towards online video and display." For 2015 -- which won't have an Olympics or major elections -- he expects total TV ad sales to fall 0.3% with local stations -5.0%, the Big 4 broadcast networks -3.0%, national cable nets +5.0%, local cable -1.0%, and syndication (which includes WB, CW, and MyNetwork TV) flat.