Shows Crave Juice From On-Air Promos

Mar 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In the world of network marketing, not all show campaigns are created equal.

But this season the power of the promo-as well as the disparity between the amount of support thrown behind various shows-became more apparent than ever. That’s due in large part to the high-profile success of ABC’s breakout hits “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.” Both shows had the benefit of detailed launch marketing campaigns that comprised heavy rotation of on-air promos and went on to be monster ratings successes.

A range of TV players with vested interests in shows makes it their business to affect the way programs are marketed. As upfront week approaches, some of them already are plotting to get the best promotion possible for their shows. A look at promo plans from this season and the process of prioritizing network marketing campaigns for this fall reveal that a wide variety of factions in the TV business-from network toppers, marketing mavens and current executives to producers and their agents-have interests in promotion.

Networks begin prioritizing shows right after the upfront meetings and decide which of them will get the biggest fall promo campaigns. Then, about eight to 12 weeks leading up to the fall debut of the shows, the networks unleash scores of promos on behalf of the new series.

“There are lead ponies in these races,” George Schweitzer, president of CBS Marketing Group, said. “You have to prioritize.”

Most networks run a total of 100 to 120 spots-15, 20 and 30 seconds in length-in support of each of its top new fall shows, for a total of about 60 minutes in promo time during prime time before a show debuts, marketing executives said. This normally amounts to 600 to 800 total household rating points in building to its debut.

Last fall ABC gave its top promotion time to “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

As part of their recent midseason debuts, shows including NBC’s boxing reality series “The Contender” and ABC’s drama “Blind Justice” and single-camera comedy “Jake in Progress” got a wealth of on-air promotional spots touting their premieres, what some TV execs have called the “Desperate Housewives” treatment.

How effective the biggest midseason promo campaigns have been remains to be seen. For example, NBC’s “The Contender,” after mediocre special previews, opened March 13 with a 2.7 rating in adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was slightly above par for the time period but hardly the breakout hit the show’s producers had been selling in numerous interviews and press events.

Executives close to the show said “Contender” was always going to have a difficult time attracting women, because early tracking showed a female audience had little interest in the show, especially in the last six minutes, when the fight scenes air.

On ABC, the “Justice” and “Jake” premieres fared better but were hardly groundbreaking.

Still, no matter the outcome, network promotional time is highly desired by the creatives behind the shows and considered a gauge of how supportive the network is of its projects.

And the outcome often is mixed. Last summer and into fall 2004, “Father of the Pride” was one of NBC’s most promoted shows on the network, mostly due to promos run during the network’s Summer Olympics programming. NBC also focused on “Joey,” “Hawaii” and “LAX.” Of the four, only “Joey” has survived. A network spokesman would say only that the promotion worked for just those shows that premiered well.

For fall 2004 CBS devoted its major on-air resources for new dramas “CSI: NY” and “Clubhouse,” and somewhat less for the comedy “Listen Up.” CBS also focused on its first two “CSI” franchise shows. “CSI: NY” is considered a performer in its highly competitive Wednesday 10 p.m. time period, but “Clubhouse” didn’t make the grade and was pulled. “Listen Up” continues to struggle.

By making the debuting scripted dramas “Housewives” and “Lost” a priority, other first-year shows such as “Boston Legal,” “life as we know it” and “Savages” got less promotional time.

Fox, because of its much-touted “52-week season” and year-round debuts, has even more challenges when it comes to promoting new shows. Last summer, for example, Fox had the unenviable task of launching five shows in less than a month. The tight time frame was predicated by NBC’s Olympics coverage. Executives close to the networks now admit it was too much to handle. It is likely that Fox will focus on a smaller number of shows next summer.

ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox executives would not comment on specifics in regard to promotion time, gross rating points or number of spots devoted to shows. Nonetheless, as networks gear up for the upfront program presentation in May, executive producers not only are anxiously waiting to see if their shows make it on schedules, they’re also wondering how much their shows will be supported with promotion. That’s particularly true if their shows are considered on the bubble. In that case, extra promotion could help tip the ratings to an additional season pickup.

While many producers make it clear they want more on-air promotion, not all will get it.

Why a show gets promotion time doesn’t always depend on its creative merits. Some executive producers are more savvy than others and spend energy working network executives to secure more promo time.

DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg, the driving force behind his studio’s animated comedy “Father of the Pride” and “Contender,” is a prime example of a producer who pays attention to marketing and engages regularly with a network to pile on more airtime for his shows.

The jockeying can also work its way into network current departments, where executives assigned to various shows jostle to get promos on the air for their assigned shows.

At ABC, fall 2004 marked a return to the marketing days when the network would spotlight specific TV shows. Marketing executives said that before Stephen McPherson came on board last year as president of ABC Primetime Entertainment, ABC tended to evenly distribute its promo time across all shows.

At the top level, a network can spend up to $5 million for the extra media buys. Executives said ABC did this for “Desperate Housewives,” for which it also bought outdoor, radio and print advertising. A couple of years ago ABC spent the same level of paid media for “Alias,” one marketing executive said. “Alias,” a critical success with a core audience of dedicated fans, has been unable to break out beyond its respectable but still limited audience.

Of course, the strategy of picking winners can create high-profile stepchildren for a network.

This season, some critics said, the award-winning “Boston Legal” hasn’t received much marketing support, especially as the lead-out of the network’s monster hit “Housewives.”

ABC disagreed: “I know for a fact that we have run multiple promos for `Boston Legal’ in `Desperate Housewives,”‘ said Mike Benson, senior VP of marketing for ABC Entertainment.

ABC executives told David E. Kelley Productions, which produces “Boston Legal,” that its series has one major benefit virtually no show on network TV has: A strong lead-in from ABC’s dominating Sunday night schedule that includes “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “Desperate Housewives.”

“We said to them, `Listen, we are going to use “Desperate” as a launching pad for you. You are going to have the best lead-in on our air. We are going to marry you in all of our marketing for Sunday night,”‘ ABC’s Mr. McPherson said. “And that’s worked really well. It drives viewers from `Home’ and `Desperate `into `Boston Legal.”‘

David E. Kelley Productions executives declined to comment for this story.

Never Enough Promos

Complaints from TV producers are nothing new. One senior television executive with network and studio experience said no matter what networks do, executive producers are going to be disappointed with the amount of on-air promotion they get.

“It’s always frustrating, even if you are the one they choose to highlight,” he said, noting that at one network where he had a show, executives
“more often than not just lied to my face” about how many spots would run. At the same time, the executive was sympathetic.

“There is only so much inventory on the air,” he added. “It is almost impossible to promote seven nights of programming equally.”

But the executive said that when he was producing, that didn’t stop him from assigning assistants to videotape prime-time schedules so he would know exactly how many spots were running and when.

“I would have assistants count,” he said, adding that other producers he works with follow the same practice.

But the monitoring wasn’t limited to prime time. The executive said promotions running in daytime syndicated product were an important factor in exposing product to a different set of potentially interested viewers.

“It’s not just the amount,” the executive said. “It’s promotions in the right spots. To get a promo in [`The Oprah Winfrey Show,’] a promotion in `Judge Judy,’ oftentimes you get a much more targeted audience.”

Frequency and placement are only two of the factors that make promos effective, he said, pointing out that a promo that does not accurately convey the show sets viewers up for confusion when they tune in to watch.

“The wrong message being sent can do more damage than actually help,” the executive said.

Despite the higher stakes in producing network programming, securing guarantees for spots is not easy. Agents, for instance, cannot secure a set number of spots as part of the deals they make for their clients.

“You can lobby them,” one agent said of the networks, “but it’s definitely not a negotiating point” in terms of guaranteeing promotional time.

A set number of spots for a specific show would be impossible to maintain, one network marketing chief said.

“Network promotion is a fluid thing,” he said. “There are typically 22 hours of prime-time programming. There are constant changes in the program schedule where we make many promotion adjustments.”

The agent said he encourages his clients to work with the networks’ programming and promotion executives to help craft a show’s promo message. Collaboration, he said, helps to get more promos on the air and ensures the creator’s vision comes through in the promotion.

Of course, it’s not just network promotion that helps market a successful show. In the case of “Housewives” and “Lost,” for example, outdoor, print, radio, cable and Internet media buys helped drive viewer interest. And in the case of ABC, network promotions on its parent The Walt Disney Co.’s cable networks also were employed.

While promotion is a key ingredient, network marketing chiefs said other factors, including the quality of the writing, overall execution and schedule placement, contribute to the success of a show.

A network’s biggest initial concern is drawing in viewers interested in the show for its very first airing. After that, marketing executives said, the quality and creativity of a program has to bring audiences back.

“Our job is to get viewers to sample a show, and I think we do that,” said one veteran network marketing executive who didn’t want to be named.

Network dramas typically get more promotion than do comedies during a season.

“With comedies, you don’t want to wear out the jokes,” said CBS’s Mr. Schweitzer. “There is less material to work with [than with dramas]. But there are many different ways to sell or promote dramas. There are the characters, there are the plots.”

In fact, heavy promotional efforts can backfire, and executive producers should be careful what they wish for, said another agent who represents showrunners. That’s especially true for a lower-profile, quirky show that may take time to find itself and build a loyal audience. In those cases, networks may be more willing to let a struggling show stay on the air, while a show with lots of promotions that doesn’t make a ratings mark could set itself up for an early cancellation.

“Some shows benefit from that lack of scrutiny,” the agent said. “If you put in a ton of money to promote it, and after promoting it doesn’t do well, [executives] may be quick to turn on it.”

At that point a show’s failure to generate ratings could turn to other issues, including the show’s premise or execution, which are the bailiwick of the executive producer.

“You know it can’t be because of lack of promotion,” she said.