Nets Making Greater Use of Online Video

NEW YORK The broadcast networks are stepping up efforts to promote their 2008-09 fall-season shows with a particular emphasis on Internet video — a move that signals how they are learning to exploit the medium and gain back some of the confidence they surrendered to the “anytime, anywhere” environment online.

While they are all using online video, ABC, CBS, NBC, the CW and Fox have chosen different approaches in their deployment of it to woo new viewers while retaining loyal ones.

Knowing that plenty of programming will find its way online anyway, the nets have begun to use it creatively for marketing purposes, in addition to simply offering some of their content for free. “It’s indicative of how their thinking has matured,” said James McQuivey, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

ABC, for instance, has created online “Starter Kits,” which are slick, packaged recaps of a show’s entire season, told through the point of view of a certain character in eight minutes or less. In the starter kit for Dirty Sexy Money, the chauffeur for the Darling family speaks to the viewer as though he is sharing a secret as he recounts the various key plot points from the first season. The kits went up in early August on ABC.com and are also being distributed broadly through other digital outlets, such as Yahoo! and Google’s YouTube.

“Video online has become a really important part of what we do — and what consumers want. But it has also become an incredibly important part of our marketing program,” said Michael Benson, evp of ABC Entertainment.

A month before the Sept. 1 season premiere of Gossip Girl, the CW created 10 “OMG Moments” (short for “oh my god moments”) that consisted of clips between 30 seconds and two minutes long from the past season. Twice a week in the run-up to the show’s premiere, the network gave viewers a chance to sample story lines (or get refreshed on them) and vote online to choose the best one.

“We felt that rather than give viewers a straightforward ‘Here’s five catch-ups in five minutes,’ that this was more of that younger vernacular they are used to and would have more fun with,” said Rick Haskins, evp of marketing and brand strategy at the CW.

NBC’s sampling strategy is to show the first full episode of each show, typically one week prior to its on-air debut. This season, nine prime-time shows will get the same treatment. This includes five returning programs, such as 30 Rock and Chuck, and new shows like Kath and Kim and My Own Worst Enemy.

Adam Stotsky, president of NBC entertainment marketing, said that strategy, begun two years ago, has worked well for the network by “giving consumers opportunities to taste the shows so that they get engaged with the characters in advance of their premieres.” The goal, Stotsky said, is to turn the audience into marketers themselves. Added John Miller, CMO of NBC Universal Television Group and president of The NBC Agency: “We’re not just selling a movie that opens in a weekend. We’re selling a long-term commitment to a television series.”

According to some observers, that approach is wise, given budget constraints. “If you think about the cost to produce an hour of prime-time television these days, it’s in the millions,” said Forrester’s McQuivey. “And it’s very hard to produce [more extensive Web promo materials, like added Webisodes] outside of the 22 episodes you’re going to have in a season that is going to match, in terms of quality, like actors’ performances and well-written material.” Producers are looking for ways to generate cheap additional content, like behind-the-scenes happenings or repurposed existing footage. “So, you have to look around and determine what’s cheaper to produce and what essentially preserves the core experience of the show,” McQuivey said.

CBS and Fox have created more extensive tangential content for some shows. For The Eleventh Hour, a new show about scientific crises and oddities, CBS has created a Web site that will aggregate “mysteries of science” stories — all based on facts rather than fiction, said George Schweitzer, president of CBS marketing. For The Mentalist, a new program about a detective who solves crimes through his powers of observation, CBS is creating a Web site that will have more of a gaming feel to it, offering mental hybrid images, where “mentalists” can read your mind, said Schweitzer.

Fox is also experimenting online for Fringe, a show about the paranormal that premieres Sept. 9. It has developed a series within a series called “The Science of Fringe.” Eight online episodes feature interviews with experts discussing occurrences in the world today that have resulted from scientific experiments that took place in the past, said Joe Earley, evp of marketing for Fox Broadcasting. One of the goals is to get viewers to contribute examples of oddities they may have witnessed.

Earley emphasized the importance of having rich content available online. “Although someone may be going to the Web site just to figure out what is on tonight or to catch up on an episode, we want to have plenty of rich video there for them to experience to form a deeper connection to the show,” he said.

John Zamoiski, co-CEO of entertainment marketing firm Norm Marshall Associates, said that strategy enhances the consumer experience. “People like having the ability to see something they would not be able to otherwise,” he said. “It gives them bragging rights when they have a conversation with somebody else. But the important thing is to make sure it is an entertaining experience. In that instance, everybody wins.”