Gingerly planning and selling 9/11

Jul 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks NBC plans to start the day on a somber note and end on a musical high note.
The network will announce this week that it will broadcast “A Concert for America,” likely to feature an appearance by President and Mrs. George W. Bush and artists including Gloria Estefan, Alan Jackson, Maya Angelou, Placido Domingo and the National Symphony Orchestra. The concert will be taped Sept. 9 in Washington and will be hosted by “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw.
Mr. Brokaw also will host an afternoon national town meeting from NBC headquarters. After the town meeting Brian Williams will host a live news show.
Prime time will start with a repeat of “The West Wing” episode, “Isaac and Ishmael,” in which the fictional White House faces a crisis with Sept. 11 overtones.
All the networks have begun to approach Madison Avenue with still-sketchy plans for anniversary programming and ad or sponsorship sales.
In the advertising community the broadcast and cable news networks will find mixed reactions to a number of aspects of the anniversary programming-including the ubiquity of it and the hard-to-predict public appetite for what may strike the general population as a manufactured event, if the networks go overboard.
“I think too much of this is not a good thing,” said one buyer. “This would be tough for many clients to support, because it is such a sensitive subject. You’ve got to find someone who can, in a way, afford a lot of money for a little audience.”
NBC will start its anniversary coverage, titled “America Remembers,” with a two-hour “Dateline” Sept. 10. It will begin the anniversary day of wall-to-wall programming in much the same way as the other networks will-with its morning news stars presiding over extended blocks of coverage of official memorial services.
Fox Broadcasting will air a two-hour Sept. 11 prime-time program produced by Fox News Channel with little if any commercial interruption expected.
ABC News was the first to release a framework for its anniversary coverage, announcing at the end of April that it would program a full day and evening up through “Nightline.” It is titled simply “9/11.”
CBS said last week that it will extend “The Early Show” at least through noon on Sept. 11 and fill prime time with “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II”-the breakdown still to be determined. Also still up for discussion as of last week: whether CBS News might program any or all of the anniversary afternoon.
CBS will repeat “9/11,” the acclaimed two-hour documentary about how one New York firehouse was touched by the attacks and the collapse of the fabled twin towers, Sunday, Sept. 8. When it first aired March 10, the documentary was seen by some 39 million people.
Nextel Communications sponsored the first broadcast, but will not return as a sponsor Sept. 8. A Nextel spokeswoman had no comment.
CBS plans to retain the limited-interruption format for “9/11” and is looking for another sponsor.
On Madison Avenue, some feel that advertisers who are comfortable running within news programming are likely to be comfortable within Sept. 11 anniversary programming.
“If it’s tasteful, it works,” said MediaCom co-CEO Jon Mandel.
The question of taste cuts both ways. Networks will be as alert to the content of spots as advertisers and potential sponsors are to the news content of the anniversary coverage.
“The creative message has to fit the mood of the day,” said Chris Geraci, director of national broadcast at OMD. He personally would be neither reluctant to advertise on, nor worried about the amount of time devoted to, the anniversary. “It deserves all the time it gets,” he said.
Further complicating the commercial questions is the difficulty of being able to predict the appropriate times for commercial breaks, especially during the morning, when memorial ceremonies will dominate the coverage.
Thus, it may be easier in some dayparts to sell sponsorships. ABC, for one, was described by Madison Avenue sources as looking for sponsorships throughout its long anniversary day.
CNN is looking for “the perfect match” with two to four anniversary-programming sponsors whose spots can play across CNN’s multiple television and Internet platforms.
The reaction, said Greg D’Alba, executive VP of ad sales for CNN, “has been stronger than I expected.” He said the American Stock Exchange is “very interested,” as are financial services based in New York.
Mr. D’Alba cited the slate of six public service announcements the Ad Council launched July 4 as an example of how a tragedy-inspired message can be uplifting. One spot includes a voiceover that says, “Everyone said Sept. 11 changed the country” and shows American flags sprouting throughout a residential neighborhood. NBC’s goal is to include commercial breaks (for the network and affiliates) and local co-op windows at 26 minutes and 56 minutes past the hour (a la the “Today” show) in its Sept. 11 coverage.
Antennae are up at local stations across the country for potential content problems in syndicated programming that will air around the anniversary and programming provided by the networks.
At the grass-roots level, some believe that while stations in the markets most directly affected by Sept. 11 may be able to find local sponsors for anniversary programming, stations in most markets likely will not. (NBC, for one, will offer material to fill the local inserts to stations who can’t use the time.)
Even at the network level, one agency executive said, “There’s no way they are going to go through a day like this and not suffer some kind of revenue loss.”
Tim Spengler, executive director of national broadcast for Initiative Media North America, said he expects the networks first to try to sell the programming as specials, then to try to move upfront buyers into the day, and then to fill in the gaps with inventory sold at discounted scatter rates.
“This day is not about making money,” said Harry Keeshan, executive VP and director of national broadcast for PHD.