Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Back in spring of 1987, shortly before newly minted Fox Broadcasting launched its first prime-time schedule, I put a question to then-President Barry Diller, who had been hired to lead the new network by News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch: How could Fox succeed? At the time conventional wisdom was that there wasn’t room for a fourth broadcast network, or for that matter enough audience interest. A prominent Hollywood trade paper during that period referred to the launch as “Rupert’s Folly.”
Mr. Diller told me there was only one way it could survive. Fox had to find TV programs compelling enough to create loyal viewers who would seek it out, leap technological barriers, subscribe to something, whatever it took, to make an appointment with that show. And once they were hooked on shows like “Married With Children” or “The Simpsons,” the channel would also become one of their favorites.
I was reminded of that observation last week when CTAM released “Tracking the Evolving Use of Television and its Content,” the first in what is planned as a series of annual studies into how consumers watch TV and use new media. While it doesn’t get into the impact of new technology such as DVRs and VOD (because so few surveyed had the new devices), it does provide an interesting portrait of the 2004 viewer.
“The biggest surprise to me as a programmer was that this study showed that the predominant reason people turn on the television set and go to a particular channel is still because of a program they have an appointment to watch,” said Michael Pardee, VP of research for Scripps Networks and one of those who worked on the study, done in association with Lieberman Research Worldwide.
“Two-thirds of tuning, in this day and age,” added Mr. Pardee, “is still driven by people making an appointment with their television to watch a certain show.”
The study asked only about what the respondent had viewed the previous evening. It found that those who watched at all had viewed between two and three hours of prime time. And two things had a large impact on their viewing choices-what they read on the on-screen programming guide and word of mouth from pals.
That means the on-screen navigation system is incredibly important. “It also said the most important place to promote television programming is on television, especially on your own channel, or those that draw a similar audience,” said Mr. Pardee.
When that viewer found the desired show, he or she stayed and sampled other shows on that channel. When asked to name their favorite channels, the 1,200 consumers surveyed could recall only an average of 2.5 channels. About half said they had adopted one new channel as a favorite in the past year.
I wondered whether that would jibe with the thoughts of a real network researcher, so I asked Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System, what he thought.
“There is what people say and there is what people do,” said Mr. Wakshlag. “And then there is what they really do. People don’t always remember what they watched. They only remember shows they liked. However, today, with electronic measurement, we often know what they actually watched.”
Mr. Wakshlag said he has been looking at what it will take to draw an audience in the future. “Overall the program is the thing,” he said. “[Viewers] also learn to associate certain networks with having a higher probability of having something they are going to like.”
The study said that those who don’t have a specific show in mind will often go to specific channels to see what is available. “They are specifically surfing,” said Mr. Pardee.
While it is all right to try fresh programs on a channel, it must all fit in with the brand image and the programming environment or it can put a viewer off. “A brand must fulfill what a consumer expects over and over again,” said Char Beales, president and CEO of CTAM.
Ms. Beales said the biggest surprise in the study for her was that “The majority of people still like TV the way it is. They watch television to be entertained. A lot of people are satisfied to sit on the couch and watch the whole show, whether it is on broadcast or cable. “
So if you are a programmer, it is obviously best to have a hit show and important to be on a network that builds viewer loyalty. And it is dangerous to mess with your brand by making changes too quickly or putting on something outside the viewers’ expectations.
believer in rebranding
So doesn’t that present a huge challenge for any new channel, or for one that tries to rebrand? I put that question to Rich Cronin, president of GSN, which was called the Game Show Network before it rebranded a few months ago.
Mr. Cronin told me he is a big believer in brands and in creating the right programming environment. He said the network never felt there was a danger that it would lose the audience that watched endless reruns of game shows. “We actually believe we are expanding our audience,” Mr. Cronin said. “All of our promotion is done in a kind of fun, upbeat, lighthearted tone. We want people to love to watch our channel as much as they love to watch individual shows. I believe strongly the tone, attitude, packaging and clarity of the brand is the key.”
GSN has a way to go yet to meet those goals, but Mr. Cronin feels the network is on the right track. He cites as a role model The Learning Channel, reinvented as TLC, with a broader range of shows and some hits, such as “Trading Spaces.”
“You have to have programs that are consistent with the brand and the shows have to be good,” said Turner’s Mr. Wakshlag. “They can’t just be edgy. They have to be good. Ultimately, hit shows drive networks and brands.”
Just like Barry Diller said.