For years, consumers perceived cable operators much in the
same way they thought about umpires in baseball.
You can't have a game (or cable program) without an umpire
(or operator), but you want to watch the action and not the ump -- until something goes
wrong and you need someone to yell at. (That runner was out! This bill is too high!)
Of late, things have changed in the cable world. Cable
operators, feeling the pressure of competition from direct-broadcast satellite and other
technologies, have been making more of an effort to establish a positive presence in their
Cable networks have caught on to how much this means to
operators, and they are increasingly lending their affiliates a hand in boosting their
"Local events have become more significant for the
operators," said Alan Clairmont, marketing director for AT&T Broadband &
Internet Services' TCI Northwest division.
"The strength for cable is its 'localness' compared
with satellite services," said Mike Smith, director of field communications for
AT&T Broadband (formerly Tele-Communications Inc.).
Event-marketing support is "part of the foundation of
our programming strategy," Bresnan Communications vice president of marketing Joe
Lawson said. "The only way to differentiate ourselves from others is to co-brand with
a network." And if the network won't play ball, "we're not interested in
The result has been an explosion of local market events
Comedy Central sponsored 88 events last year, triple the
number from three years ago. The events help operators to improve relations with local
politicians and to enhance their standing in the minds of viewers, while simultaneously
providing networks with a marketing platform and solidifying their relationships with
For starters, the events can be an extra source of revenue.
"The hard reality is that we go with what delivers
ad-sales revenue or subscriber growth and retention," Time Warner Cable corporate
director of community relations Bonnie Hathaway said.
David McFarland, director of affiliate ad sales for Comedy,
said generating ad revenue with events -- like his network's comedy shows -- is easy not
only because they tend to draw well, but also because "advertisers are looking to
connect with the community, as well."
But perhaps more important than any short-term gains,
Hathaway said, is the fact that as DBS and other options become available, operators need
to be part of the community because "when given choice of relative equals, people
will go with who they know. With these programs, we don't just look like pipes for the
Turner Classic Movies vice president of marketing Katherine
Evans added, "When they're raising rates, there is a lot of ill will to deal with,
and giving the viewer a warm and fuzzy experience can change how people feel."
Lawson said operators get "more mileage" for
social involvement in customer surveys. TCM has a "Descriptive Video Service,"
where the network teams up with local operators to provide screenings for the visually
impaired. (Staten Island Cable in Staten Island, N.Y., received a local community-service
award for this effort.)
Even when she's looking to do some good, Hathaway looks for
the more creative and dynamic events.
A promotional visit (even with a charitable event tied in)
from one of Country Music Television's "CMT Trucks" is helpful, she said, but it
pales in comparison to the eye-catching, unforgettable, 80-foot "Animal Planet Rescue
Truck," which travels around the country training local police, providing veterinary
services and making daring rescues.
Smith, however, pointed out that variety is needed, and
while a visit from a CMT Truck or a Disney Channel mall event has "less gut-level
impact" than socially oriented programs, they still generate the goodwill needed by
The whole concept of branding an operator in a local market
is important not just in reaching consumers, but in "influencing the opinions of
local leaders who give us our franchises and whom we must often negotiate with,"
Bresnan vice president of public affairs Suzanne Thompson said.
"Our events are not just for the public," Comedy
vice president of affiliate relations Steve Males said. "They allow the operator to
bring the local political establishment in."
A concert allows for VIP treatment, but better still is a
community-oriented awards dinner sponsored by a network and operator, which can provide
local dignitaries with speaking roles, providing a significant benefit to the operator
beyond the immediate bottom line.
Disney Channel vice president of marketing Adam Sanderson
pointed to a recent program with Cox Communications Inc., "Going Wild with Jeff
Corwin: A Line to Learning Adventure," in which a Disney show host led a live Webcast
to eight schools around the country.
The program was educational, but it also showed off the
high-speed transmission technology, which is important to Cox because "it shows local
officials and consumers that they're not the same old cable company."
For the networks, the event must not only help with
affiliate relations, Sanderson said, but it must also generate consumer awareness --
preferably with media coverage that extends the promotion beyond the event itself.
For instance, TCM brought former movie star Esther Williams
into town to help launch the network in a suburb of Philadelphia; Williams participated in
a live interview in front of 600 fans, and she also met with the local press.
GIVE SYSTEMS CREDIT
This mutual support system hasn't always operated so
smoothly. For a long time, programmers "never thought about the local system getting
credit for the promotion," Great American Country vice president of marketing Scott
Now, when GAC launches in a new market, it brings in an
artist for a "Customer Appreciation Concert," which makes it seem as if the
operator has organized an event for locals.
Hathaway said programmers thought only of the viewer as
their client, forgetting about the local affiliates. "There was a huge
disconnect," she said, adding that networks would occasionally show up in markets
without letting operators know in advance. "There is nothing worse than that."
Even when they did work with operators, most networks
offered only "add-water-and-stir" prepackaged events, with little concern for
local objectives," Thompson said.
Now, Hathaway added, we are in "a golden age" of
local event co-promotions -- major networks like Comedy, ESPN, Lifetime Television and the
Discovery Networks U.S. channels have all aggressively pursued this strategy.
Operators said some top-tier networks have lacked
commitment, however, including USA Network, which dropped the "Erase the Hate"
campaign that was beloved by operators, and MTV: Music Television, which does dazzling
national campaigns on its own, but limited local operations.
But even in this new era, many of the events offered by
networks -- particularly by the bigger programmers -- are turnkey events.
Clairmont complained that since most turnkey events can't
be adapted to local needs, he'll often pass on them.
"More often than not, we create our own opportunity,
then go to the networks and see if they'll partner up," he said. "The operator
has to be aggressive. If you ask, most are cooperative. If you just sit back and wait for
turnkey programs, you're missing opportunities."
TCM CAN'T LOSE
Sometimes, of course, operators are happy to team up with a
major star, no matter what the conditions.
TCM has a turnkey event at Oscar time called "Classic
Academy Award Weekend," where the network and an affiliate sponsor local screenings
of high-profile classics like Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon.
The event is simple to run and, while it costs TCM $30,000
and up per market (with five markets per year), it is essentially a can't-lose situation
for the operator. (TCM also customizes events for operators, providing World War II movies
for a Veteran's Day event upon request, for example.)
Disney Channel doesn't offer much room for local fiddling
(parent company The Walt Disney Co. is known for its tight-fisted control). But Disney
characters are such guaranteed crowd-pleasers that it doesn't matter.
The network just completed a 10-city tour with a live stage
show -- "On the Road with Bear in the Big Blue House" -- that spun off one of
its popular programs. Operators were generally limited to customized signage on the set --
no locally made banners or other such paraphernalia were allowed -- as well as breakfast
events for local VIPs, Sanderson said.
But Disney spent in the low seven figures for the program
-- an extravaganza by most event standards. (For smaller markets, the network spends far
less, sending its talent out to do story readings and crafts programs.)
In fact, the production values -- which included a 40-foot
"Big Blue House" -- were so impressive that Disney is actually installing the
show at MGM Studios at Disney World this summer.
To maximize effectiveness, Disney often invited two or
three different affiliates to participate, although Sanderson acknowledged that with three
operators, "it got a little crowded."
But he said Disney would continue having two operators from
the same market in on one event. Clairmont said he obviously prefers exclusive branding,
but he wouldn't reject a shared program.
Many networks -- particularly smaller ones that are
struggling with carriage issues -- are now happy to "talk to the affiliates and find
out what's important to them in creating a program," GoodLife Television Network
senior affiliate marketing manager Gaye Safford said. GoodLife's programs include the
"Homework Helpers" tutoring program.
"In the past, it was much more unilateral, a 'take it
or leave it,'" Smith said. "But with so much more competition for carriage from
operators, networks no longer have the power to come in and dictate. There's an awakening
now among programmers that they have to let systems tweak and adjust it so that systems
can get as much bang out of it as they do."
"We now get calls all of the time from networks
wanting to know what it is we want to get out of a particular project," Hathaway
CMT has a fleet of five CMT Trucks that do 1,200 local
promotions annually, and the event changes "from market to market, depending on
whatever the operator is involved in," CBS Cable vice president of marketing Steve
Yanovsky said. (CBS Cable is CMT's parent company.)
At Comedy, director of local events and promotions Naomi
Frisch said she'd never ask a comedian to tailor his or her act, but the network does pick
squeaky clean comics for, say, a conservative Southern market, and edgier jokesters for,
say, a college market.
Sometimes, though, the network and operator have to find a
Bresnan has a "Super Seniors" program that
Thompson said helps to battle the "typical cable resistance" among seniors. The
Super Seniors umbrella included events like big-band dances sponsored by American Movie
But when Bresnan went to GoodLife about doing a Super
Senior program for its system in the Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., market, GoodLife
said no. The network was attempting to shed its older-demo label. "We didn't want to
be affiliated just with seniors," Safford said.
Instead, Bresnan and GoodLife created the "Prism Award
for Women of Distinction." GoodLife brought the popular "Biker Grannies" to
town to generate press attention for the awards dinner, which the network and operator
"It was well-conceived and well-performed,"
Thompson said. "It was a true partnership, which is an important element of a
And long-term is a key to any successful event. "They
can't be one-shot deals," Hathaway said. "They take a lot of energy and
resources. If we devote the effort, we want something with staying power."
"The ones that get the best results are the ones with
a longer life -- events you can come back to year after year," added Thompson, who is
looking forward to making the Prism Award both an annual event in Duluth-Superior and an
event for other Bresnan affiliates.
When programs are done well, they can help a network
through tough times.
COURT TV'S TURN
While Courtroom Television Network has been struggling
on-screen, its "Choices and Consequences" umbrella program -- and, specifically,
its "Your Turn" town-hall meetings for kids and teens -- are among the most
consistently praised local events.
"We don't say, 'Here's what we want,'" Court TV
senior vice president of public and government affairs Scoot MacPherson said. "The
topics are locally authored. We go to local officials and to kids in school and ask what
the issues are."
The Your Turn meetings -- which have covered everything
from self-esteem to gun control, and which involve not only local kids, but mayors,
governors and district attorneys -- are aired locally by the operator and nationally by
They cost the network upward of $50,000 each, but Court TV
did 24 last year alone. "It makes good business sense and social sense,"
Networks have to be flexible, too. When Bresnan wanted to
adapt the program for a minor market in northern Michigan, MacPherson agreed. Court TV
sent a couple of producers to work with the affiliate, and the affiliate ran the show,
allowing local kids to do much of the editing, producing and other work.
The new show was called, fittingly, "Our Turn,"
and MacPherson was so pleased by the results (and the low cost) that he's planning to do
more around the country.
"These events give operators great branding with
politicians, advertisers and consumers and a lot of media attention," he said.
Sometimes, he added, a broadcast-network affiliate will recognize the news value of the
event but choose camera angles to evade the cable operator's and Court TV's logos.
Obviously, the events help Court TV, too. While carriage
decisions are ultimately decided by economics, Smith said, Court TV's program "has
kept it in front of the public and our local general managers. And that helped to save it
as it struggles for its life."
Hathaway called Court TV's local events efforts "solid
gold," not least because they bring operators in contact with high-level and
influential supporters like state attorneys general, the U.S. Department of Education and
others. "Think of what that does for a system," she added.
"It could tip the scales in Court TV's favor"
regarding carriage, she said. "There's still the bottom line, but people will feel
that the commitment they demonstrated is a reflection of their entire business."
Similarly, Clairmont said, new networks know that
aggressive campaigns to support launches, like those by Discovery Networks' Animal Planet,
encourage MSOs to add the network in other markets.
Some networks are getting launched by helping cable systems
to draw new subscribers to the digital environment, Clairmont said, citing efforts by
Ovation - The Arts Network, The Independent Film Channel, Sundance Channel and The Golf
His TCI system did a digital demonstration as part of a
Golf local event because "upgrading our customers is one of our primary
considerations, and they know that when they're on a discretionary tier, they need to help
us get more customers."
Even with all of these networks pitching in their own
events, it seems unlikely that systems will ever feel like they're oversaturated.
All that would happen, Sanderson said, "is that
everybody will have to work a little harder to differentiate themselves and keep it