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Will Nets Break an Old Taboo?

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As consumers continue to be exposed to an increasing array of media choices, the major broadcast networks still devote between 85 percent and 90 percent of their new program promotional efforts to spots that appear on their own air. The rest is spread across the traditional and new media universe including print, radio, online, out-of-home and social networks.

But now, with DVR penetration approaching 40 percent (according to Nielsen) -- and with more than 50 percent of ads skipped in DVR playback mode -- some network executives acknowledge that their on-air promo efforts aren't as effective as they once were.

So is it finally time for the broadcast networks to start promoting their offerings on each others' air? It's a thorny competitive issue that has stirred debate recently as the networks gear up to promote their fall 2010-11 program lineups.

Five years ago the idea of the broadcast networks promoting their shows on each other's air would have been unthinkable. But now, at least one veteran TV audience analyst, Steve Sternberg, says the networks, with their shrinking audiences, need to do it to remain competitively viable.

"If ABC could, for example, promote a new show on CBS, NBC and Fox at the same time, it would be like advertising on the Winter Olympics every night," Sternberg contended. "To simply ignore such a large group of potential viewers is ridiculous," he added. "Network ratings could easily go up by 10 to 20 percent if they consistently promoted themselves on the other networks."

But even while some network executives agree it might make sense in terms of reaching a broader audience, for a variety of reasons the technique isn't likely to be embraced anytime soon, they said.  

"From a marketing standpoint I would love to do that," said Rick Haskins, evp, marketing, The CW. "But from a competitive standpoint it raises a lot of issues. I'm not sure I'd love seeing a commercial for [CBS'] Hawaii Five-0 on CW. I think we're a ways off from that."

George Schweitzer, president, CBS Marketing, agrees. "I don't see us selling time to ABC, NBC or Fox and vice versa," he said.  

Some other analysts take issue with Sternberg's position. Don Seaman, vp, director of communications analysis at MPG, believes viewers would be confused after decades of conditioning to look for a new show solely on the network where they saw it promoted.

In the short term, networks are taking steps to enhance the power of on-air promos in the DVR era. For one they've appropriated the last position in commercial pods for themselves. The position is less susceptible to skipping.

Haskins says The CW takes advantage of that by producing shorter on-air promos that direct viewers to the Web for more in-depth information. Indeed, with its younger audience, Haskins now says the network uses up to 30 percent of its promo efforts online for some programs. "We're making our on-air work harder to drive viewers online," he said.

And most of the networks have started advertising on DVR platforms like TiVo. According to Tara Maitra, TiVo's vp, gm of content services, TiVo offers several kinds of program "tags." One lets viewers know when they're fast-forwarding through a promo with a static visual, and others redirect them to places where they can view longer clips or set up recording of programs. Ads can also be placed on TiVo's home page.

Of course it was TiVo that caused the ad-skipping headaches for the networks in the first place. "Now we have solutions," said Maitra, adding that since introducing its ad capability about 18 months ago, all but one of the broadcast networks have signed up for packages.