The four major TV networks are holding up well as distinct and relevant brands in the minds of consumers. For TV advertisers, that's the good news. Here's the not-so-good news: The brand identities of an increasing number of individual shows are declining, which poses a long-term brand-dilution problem for the networks if they fail to replace them with new hits.
That's the bottom-line analysis from a new study by WPP's Young & Rubicam Brands, using its proprietary research tool called Brand Asset Valuator (BAV). The system monitors consumer perceptions of the strength and stature of 2,500 U.S. brands by conducting quarterly surveys of 10,000 consumers. The larger survey was fielded in February, May, September and December of 2004—this data was gathered and released in time for the upfront.
In determining a brand's overall strength, BAV looks at four characteristics: differentiation, relevance, esteem (likability) and overall awareness. The order of the networks in terms of brand strength has not changed since the previous year's survey: Fox, followed by NBC, followed by ABC and CBS, which are neck and neck.
The new survey shows some chinks in the NBC armor, said Tom Thornton, vp and director of marketing at Y&R Brands' Knowledge Group. "People are starting to notice shifts in the programming on NBC," he said. "They're using terms like unapproachable, which is associated with arrogance." And, he said, NBC is being associated less with words like, "kind, authentic, upper class and sensuous. What that means is people feel less familiar and comfortable with NBC shows." NBC declined comment.
NBC still has the second-strongest brand identity, behind Fox, which is viewed as the most innovative, non-traditional and different. "Fox has stellar brand health," said Thornton. "People find Fox more edgy and more exciting" than its competitors.
Thornton stressed that brand equity is a slow-build kind of process. "NBC is still a superb brand, despite their fourth-place finish this year," he said. It frequently takes years to build a brand that is well-received and widely respected by consumers. The networks have been burnishing their brands for decades.
"One bad season won't destroy the credibility of a network," said Thornton. "Five bad seasons, sure. It would take that kind of prolonged period of bad programming to lose a good deal of brand strength." Even ABC, which had three bad years before bouncing back this season, had little if any brand equity erosion, he said.
The study found CBS and ABC in a dead heat behind NBC. The difference: CBS is in "slight decline," while ABC is showing gains in brand differentiation. The reason for that, said Thornton, is that CBS hits like CSI: and Survivor, while still strong, are older and lack the freshness of ABC's Desperate Housewives and Lost.
But taken as a whole, the four major networks are "extremely well-managed brands," said Thornton, noting that among content providers, only theatrical films place higher on the brand-identity scale. "For all the talk about the decline of network TV and the influence of HBO and the Internet, we really don't see it in the data," Thornton said. All of the cable networks fall "significantly below" the broadcast networks in terms of brand strength, he said.
But all four networks have brand issues with individual shows. CBS' The King of Queens is seen as less relevant to viewers than in years past, and Fox's American Idol tests poorly on the likability scale. NBC's The West Wing and ABC's The Bachelor have also lost brand luster. Indeed, there are "quite a few" network programs whose brand equity is eroding, Thornton said. If good replacements aren't found, "that could be trouble for the networks down the road."