Later this summer, there will be no escape for viewers from
the broadcast-television networks' virtually ubiquitous marketing and promotion for
their new fall primetime schedules.
Besides the "Big 4" TV networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC
and Fox -- there will be a growing presence for the upstart broadcasters : The WB
Television Network, United Paramount Network and, for the first time, Paxson
Communications Corp.'s Pax Net. And then, there are the tune-in barrages that will be
mounted by the established cable networks -- especially The Family Channel, which is
preparing a $100 million thrust behind its Aug. 15 relaunch as Fox Family Channel.
Cable networks have been winning ratings battles on the
primetime battlefield in recent months, but the Big 4 are in no mood to surrender.
They're already rolling out some heavy marketing and promotion artillery for the fall
season in hopes of keeping the cable troops from breaking through their lines.
Consumers will become aware of the new series' and
returnees' new time slots via promo salvos while shopping in supermarkets, department
stores and the Disney Stores; while driving and visiting some auto dealerships; on plane
trips; while visiting theme parks; at restaurants; and on college campuses.
The idea, of course, is to build viewer awareness, interest
and demand. But it won't be apparent until the dust clears, well into the autumn,
just how effective all of that firepower might be in terms of drawing viewers away from
cable and back into the broadcast tent -- and keeping them there.
The trouble is thatthe network programmers again
appear to have come up with new fall schedules that will likely yield few, if any, bona
fide hits, based on ad-agency executives' predictions.
Audrey Steele, senior vice president at Zenith Media
Services, feels that it will take more than the TV networks' admittedly hefty
marketing and promotion to stem further erosion. They, as well as cable, need to change
the way that they schedule so as not to "tax and alienate viewers with a deluge of
programs," especially each autumn, she said.
Fox has previously made inroads, Steele noted, by
introducing some new-series recruits either in late summer, before the fall fray, or in
January, well after the premiere onslaught. Fox will again start Melrose Place's
new season during the summer, July 27.
But UPN executives will be taking a different tack to stand
out. Instead of trying to compete amid the clutter of September premieres, UPN intends to
delay its own new shows until early October. Another reason for starting in October is to
have enough original-series episodes to run through the Nielsen Media Research
ratings-sweeps periods. Last season, UPN went into repeats in November.
Joseph Ostrow, president and CEO of the Cabletelevision
Advertising Bureau, observed that some of the TV networks' ratings woes are of their
"The broadcasters have disciplined their audience to
be undisciplined" by their own "undisciplined" primetime-series-scheduling
practices, including the annual fall reshuffling of the deck, he said.
Moreover, the sweeps' stunting alienates some viewers.
"We're not offering viewers a choice: We're
forcing one on them," warned Les Moonves, CBS Television president.
Beyond all that, the erosion issue is bigger than
promotion, Steele said. With so many programming options available and "a finite
amount of TV that people will ever watch," she said, audience-fragmentation issues
will continue to plague the broadcasters, with or without promotion.
Still, like opponents girding for battle with the enemy,
the TV networks are confident. Multilayered fall campaigns like CBS' can generate
awareness and viewership, said George Schweitzer, CBS' executive vice president of
marketing and communications. "People are not watching less TV. [The erosion] is in
the network viewing, due to cable and other competition. We're aiming to attract more
people to CBS," he said, and he's confident that this effort will pay off.
George Greenberg, executive vice president of marketing at
Fox Broadcasting Co., agreed that fall marketing/promotional thrusts can fend off further
erosion, citing Ally McBeal as a case in point.
"Quality programming and appointment viewing will help
[to stem such erosion]," he said, noting that Ally's Nielsen share
doubled from 11 in mid-December to a 22 in mid-March. "This shows that if you've
got the goods, people will come to it."
Paul Schulman of the Paul Schulman Co., which buys for
Ralston Purina Group and others, observed, "The campaigns certainly get viewers to
notice early. But the show is the thing." Other agency executives pointed to Godzilla
as the latest case in point of the limitations of promotion. A major tie-in with Taco
Bell alone boosted the film's advertising exposure by a reported $60 million. But
after three weekends, Godzilla had grossed $110 million in the United States --
only one-half of what Sony had projected -- as negative word-of-mouth hurt its box-office
The latest proof in TV, Schulman said, was Tom
Selleck's sitcom, The Closer, which got hefty promotion during CBS'
Winter Olympic Games coverage in February.
"There couldn't have been a better campaign than
CBS' for The Closer," Schulman said. "Everybody was aware of that
show, everybody tuned in early, and they were gone by week two," he added, because
the show didn't deliver.
Some agency buyers were less certain that promotion really
Ogilvy & Mather's Peter Chrisanthopoulos,
president of broadcast and programming, said promoting programs has become
"increasingly difficult, with more and more competition for share of voice in the
crowded entertainment marketplace."
Spending big bucks to renew both sports franchises, as the
major networks recently did with the National Football League, and popular series, as NBC
did with ER and Mad About You and ABC did with Home Improvement
earlier this year, is not just about pre-empting the competition: It's also meant to
assure that "important promotion platforms" stay on their air, as
The networks have actually mapped out a two-pronged
marketing attack -- one targeting advertisers and their ad-agency time-buyers, and the
other zeroing in on viewers.
The ratings war has become more contentious than usual
lately. ABC ran ads in The New York Times and TheWall Street Journal
in May, clearly hoping to influence agencies' and advertisers' decisions just
before the upfront selling season began.
One ad that was headlined, "What a Difference a Day
Makes," maintained that by deleting Thursday nights (NBC's top-rated night), ABC
would draw the most adults aged 18 to 49. Although ABC didn't specify it in the ad,
it actually finished the season in a second-place tie with Fox in that key demo.
NBC returned fire with an ad headed, "ABC Wants You to
Ignore Thursday. Great! Let's Talk About Saturday." The copy read, "Our
strength isn't based on one night," adding that its Saturday lineup drew
"higher upscale 18-to-49 ratings than any other network's primetime
lineup," and cable networks, as well.
Buyers tended to dismiss the verbal combat as silly, while
cable executives were pleased. As a CAB spokesman said, "Whatever happened to that
network truce?" -- a reference to a recent agreement among the Big 4 networks to take
potshots at cable in public forums, rather than at each other.
Cable also found itself in broadcast TV's crosshairs.
NBC hammered at its ratings advantages over cable via spots that ran on CNBC, claiming,
"Our viewers are your best customers ... NBC's audience buys more."
One ABC ad, headlined, "Are You Still Wrestling with
Your Mix?," asked advertisers, "Thinking of shifting ad dollars from broadcast
to cable? Take a look at the top shows on cable." The ratings list of
"cable's top 15" was dominated by eight wrestling shows.
At Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. -- which has been the
most vocal about the notion of advertisers moving funds by the boxcar from TV to cable --
a spokesman replied that ABC's ad was "a great way to let advertisers know that
they can get great delivery of hard-to-reach men 18 to 34 with wrestling. It's a
Ostrow said, "It's a distraction from the very
dire straits that ABC finds itself in ... More and more people are turning to cable, and
less and less to broadcast TV. That's an undeniable truth. I think that they're
tilting at windmills."
A weapon in CBS' anti-cable arsenal, meanwhile, was a
research presentation called "Much Less than Meets the Eye." In that
upfront-season pitch, CBS -- despite having its own cable-network interests -- knocked
cable by saying that its viewership is heavy with households earning under $30,000 per
Turner Broadcasting System Inc. president Steve Heyer
blasted that pitch as incorrect and "an embarrassment" to CBS.
On a more traditional note, CBS has also been running ads
in the advertising trade press, touting its strength among baby boomers and how important
that segment is to advertisers.
In a sense, agency executives have fired a shot of their
own across the TV networks' collective bow by becoming increasingly outspoken in
saying that the broadcasters must change they way that they operate to survive in
today's multichannel universe. And the networks' top brass appeared to agree
during their recent affiliate conventions.
Preston Padden, the ABC network's president, told his
affiliates in early June, "The traditional network business model is under tremendous
Here's a look at some recent, and potential, examples
of business changes, some of which will have an impact on the networks' marketing and
The networks will be repeating their shows more
often, as cable does.
Indeed, ratings also-ran ABC already has begun, having
double-run the films Apollo 13, Babe and The Lion King -- in the May
More tune-in support would help to bolster the subsequent
outings of such programs, some agency sources felt. Otherwise, they will be
cellar-dwellers, as happened when NBC reran its Seinfeld finale one week after its
much-hyped telecast -- to dismal Nielsens.
Broadcasters seem to be picking up some other pointers, as
well, consciously or not, from their cable rivals. They seem to be copying A&E
Network's Biography series stripping tactic for their newsmagazines -- NBC, in
particular, with its Dateline NBC now due to span five nights.
Also seemingly headed in that direction: ABC, which went to
two nights of 20/20 last season, and which will double that this fall, in part via 20/20's
absorption of Primetime Live; and CBS, which added a second night of 48 Hours
as of June 22, and which is also mulling a second night of 60 Minutes.
Bob Igiel, executive vice president at Young
& Rubicam, predicted more marketing partnerships with advertisers and others. The
networks will call upon such alliances as they promote their fall lineups.
ABC is pressing its affiliates to go along with its
proposed "repurposing" of network programming. Translated, this means that the
network wants to be able to "get more value out of our program content," Padden
An example is ABC's proposal to time-shift its soap
operas on cable systems during the weekends. To learn whether such a service would
cannibalize the network's soap-opera audience, or instead draw lapsed viewers or
those unable to watch due to working, ABC will test the plan for six months on local cable
systems as of July 1. Several Cox Communications Inc., Time Warner Cable and
Tele-Communications Inc. systems are among those already set for the test.
Understandably, the affiliates fear that this repurposing,
and the resultant loss of programming exclusivity, may exacerbate TV's ratings
erosion. But if it's going to be done, affiliates said, they want to share in any
Like such cable networks as A&E and Discovery
Channel, NBC has begun seeking ancillary dollars by selling videos of certain high-profile
specials. It promoted the sale of Merlin videos at the end of each installment of
that May miniseries, reportedly selling more than 1 million copies.
In December, CBS likewise tacked a video spiel onto a Touched
by an Angel Christmas special.
In perhaps the biggest change so far, the three TV
networks that recently committed to theNFL over the next eight years have coerced
or are trying to coerce millions of dollars from their affiliates as a way of defraying
the $18 billion in rights fees.
The affiliates are expected to contribute dollars and to
give back inventory. CBS' stations, for instance, will fork over about $50 million to
CBS and return some time to the network. ABC and Fox are also pressing their stations for
Chrisanthopoulos pointed out that besides changing
their relationships with affiliates to cope with those soaring sports fees, networks may
cave in to "an additional temptation" by adding more commercial time. This comes
at a time when "commercialization is at an all-time high," he noted. Igiel and
other major buyers have expressed similar concerns.
There's a trend toward more network-owned
programming, but so far, Chrisanthopoulos said, "we have not seen evidence of
networks choosing programs on the basis of provenance alone."
Still, he expressed some concern that "a
network's interest may keep a borderline performer on the air a bit longer."
Next week: how the networks are targeting viewers to regain
their lost market share.