Nets Take Promos Beyond Their Air

NEW YORK New this fall season: Broadcast networks will rely on social networks, guerrilla events, video-on-demand, YouTube, Web portals and mobile technology more than ever before to promote their new lineups to increasingly distracted consumers. What’s not so new is the continued reliance on their own airwaves to do most of the work.

Network executives acknowledge that they still rely overwhelmingly on their own airtime to promote new lineups, with 85 to 90 percent of the impressions generated by their fall promotion campaigns originating there. There are two main reasons for that. First, it’s still the quickest way to reach viewers. Second, budgets are limited—each network spends between $30 million to $40 million on its fall campaign—and promoting on its own network doesn’t require a cash outlay.

Still, the networks recognize that new platforms are becoming ever more vital to reaching audiences, particularly younger ones. “A lot of viewers under 30 may start watching shows via iTunes or DVD or streaming players,” said Michael Benson, evp, marketing, ABC Entertainment. And over time, more viewers will embrace those entry points and the networks have to reach out to them or risk losing additional shares of audience, he said.

The stakes are particularly high following last season’s double-digit ratings declines, followed by a summer during which all the water cooler talk seemed to be about cable shows, said Brad Adgate, svp, corporate research director, Horizon Media. He noted the Aug. 17 premiere of ABC Family’s High School Musical 2, which drew more than 17 million viewers, a record for the debut of a cable program, and a major hit even by broadcast network standards.

“The big news wasn’t about anything on broadcast this summer,” he said. “It was cable.” For the broadcast networks, “it gets harder and harder to promote their new schedules because there are more choices and more good choices out there.”

The networks are still sorting out the best ways to promote in the digital world, said Shari Anne Brill, svp, director of programming at Carat. “There’s a lot of experimentation, which is good, but at the end of the day it’s up to people behind the camera to make sure people come back a second, third and fourth time.”

Much of that experimentation includes determining how much of a show to give away off-network versus making viewers tune in for the real thing.

NBC for the first time is offering viewers in the top-30 markets the opportunity to preview, free via video-on-demand, the full pilot episodes of all four of its new prime-time shows—Chuck, Bionic Woman, Journeyman and Life—before their mid-September premieres. NBC is also linking up for the first time with Starbucks and Amazon to promote its new prime-time lineup.

“Wherever a TV consumer might be during the course of their day, they are hit with a message from one of our shows,” said John Miller, CMO, NBC Universal Television Group.

ABC is about to unveil a new cross-platform branding initiative with the tag line “Start here” that’s designed to drive audience share by guiding viewers to an array of archived material on different non-network outlets, such as iTunes, VOD and online, and to the network to see the newest episodes of its programs, said Benson. ABC is also using tried-and-true methods, like screenings, with quirky twists: It recently held a screening for its new one-hour show, Pushing Daisies, about a man who can bring people back to life, at a Los Angeles cemetery. And the title characters of the new ABC Tuesday comedy Cavemen, based on the popular Geico ads, were seen at a New York Mets game last weekend. “I’m a big believer in word of mouth,” said Benson.

This season, the networks are casting a wider net than ever, said George Schweitzer, president, CBS Marketing Group: “We target the mass market and we target within the mass.” In CBS’ case that includes specialty magazines, direct marketing, digital and out-of-home venues such as grocery stores, hair salons and even on American Airlines, where the network will screen Cane and The Big Bang Theory to an estimated 5 million passengers in September.

But the biggest change in CBS’ approach to targeted promotion this fall, said Schweitzer, is the launch of the CBS Interactive Audience Network, under which the network has struck new content deals with Web sites and distributors including AOL, Microsoft Network and CNET.

CBS is still deciding to what extent it will distribute new programs online before they premiere on the air. “Most people don’t download one-hour shows,” said Schweitzer. “They want more than the typical 30-second promotion they can get on the network, but often prefer a three-minute scene or four-minute recap of last season to a full episode. So we’re creating a product to suit their interests.”

NBC, on the other hand, in addition to the VOD sampling, is distributing full episodes of new shows on the Web, on outlets such as Yahoo, MSN and Amazon. “We need to give viewers as much opportunity to catch the shows as we possibly can,” said Miller. “We’re trying to build a viewing habit for 22 episodes, not just premiere week.”

ABC’s Benson has a different view. “We’re OK with people coming to us on any platform,” he said, but new episodes are events. “If you let the cat out of the bag, it destroys the event,” he said. So ABC will distribute scenes and clips to multiple platforms before the season starts, but not full episodes.

The CW network hasn’t decided yet whether to preview full episodes on the Web, said Rick Haskins, evp, marketing and brand strategy at the network. But all the network’s upfront preview clips are on YouTube. “We thank them, whoever put them up,” he said.