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ABC Marshaled Forces to Sell Key Programs

Oct 11, 2004  •  Post A Comment

A reallocation of marketing expenditures, a sharper focus on a handful of new shows and less creative clutter in how key shows were sold were at the heart of the ABC network’s surprisingly strong fall season start, according to network and industry sources.

The shows that got the big push and produced quick results are new-season launches “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Wife Swap.”

Just how much ABC spent is in dispute. The network insisted last week that it spent about the same level of resources this year as it did last year. Stephen McPherson, president of ABC primetime entertainment, said the network actually spent less in overall paid media than a year ago.

Yet industry sources insisted ABC spent well in excess of the average of about $3 million per new show that networks normally spend.

By some accounts, the expenditures on “Lost,” in particular, were unusually high. Sources outside ABC place the marketing cost for that show alone at $5 million to $8 million.

ABC said it did spend more on those three shows by re-allocating some marketing dollars for a limited period. The network would not provide specific figures.

Where did the extra money go? Among other things, ABC used an outdoor billboard campaign for the first time in five years. In addition to plugs on its own air and on some sister networks, ABC bought media on other cable networks and in magazines and newspapers.

Moving beyond the typical marketing effort ABC did campaigns in some big cities, where it put up movie-style posters at random locations. The posters were a takeoff on typical missing-person posters. They contained the word “Lost” at the top, showed a picture of each character and listed some pertinent personal information.

A special stunt for “Desperate Housewives” involved dry cleaning stores, which distributed special bags to customers sporting the show’s logo and tagline, “Everyone has a little dirty laundry.”

There was also guerrilla marketing. For instance, for the premiere of “Lost,” ABC placed 5,000 bottles with messages on beaches in California, New York and New Jersey. The messages said: “Help me, I’m lost. You can find me on Wednesday, September 22 on ABC at 8 p.m.”

What the posters, stunts and marketing campaigns did not do was go into a lot of detail about the characters and plot. “We didn’t want to make people feel like they have seen everything,” said Mike Benson, senior VP of marketing, advertising and promotion for ABC Entertainment. “We didn’t want too much out there, confusing people as to what the show was.”

That was part of a creative decision that also involved doing fewer separate elements and simplifying the message in all cases. Where in the past the network did as many as 10 different creative promos for each show, this fall for the trio of spotlight shows it did only two to four for each series.

“When I see a great trailer in the movie theater, I don’t think you need to see three versions of the trailer,” Mr. McPherson said. “If it’s interesting to me, I’m there. You can do all sorts of creative marketing, but if you are not bringing the goods you are delivering, that’s a real issue.”

ABC even went so far as to have just one basic 60-second spot for “Lost”-from which shorter-length promos were derived-and two print creative pieces. One print execution featured the word “Lost” in large type with smaller black-and-white background images of an island and profiles of the castaways.

For “Desperate Housewives” the print campaign consisted of two creative messages. One was a simple shot with all five leading woman, in slightly seductive poses, featuring the “dirty laundry” tagline. Another featured a similar full-length shot of female characters in the show all wearing white dresses.

ABC’s marketing was also effective because the shows had strong concepts, good show footage and great titles, according to media agency executives. “`Desperate Housewives’ and `Lost’ had a lot of good print and good critical reviews,” said Jason Maltby, senior partner and managing director of national broadcast for MindShare USA. “They were lucky they had the product that created that good buzz.”

Risky Title

But it didn’t start that way. Some media buying executives questioned using the title “Desperate Housewives,” which some felt would turn off female viewers. “When you are just basing things entirely on a title you can make an error in judgment,” Mr. McPherson said. “But once you see the show, you see there was a comedic side as well as irony. We weren’t actually condemning the American woman.”

“Wife Swap” may have been the more difficult sell. It’s a reality show about wives who swap families for a period of time. They live by the rules of their new households and later establish their own rules. Fox took-some would say stole-the concept and developed “Trading Spouses,” launching it this past summer.

“Our show creatively had more substance,” Mr. McPherson said. “It has emotion to it. Our initial marketing, without question, helped Fox launched its show and get some little sampling. But people came and saw it was poorly produced.”

While much time was spent on these shows, Mr. Benson insisted that every new ABC show had healthy campaigns-including “The Benefactor,” “Rodney” and “life as we know it.” But analysts noted those shows have yet to show the same results as “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Wife Swap.”