Off-Air Ploys Bid for Elusive Viewers

Aug 29, 2005  •  Post A Comment

If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, you may end up getting a network TV promo instead.

Put in the word “tattoo” as a query on an online search engine and the reply you get may well be an ad for “Prison Break,” which premieres tonight on Fox as part of its early fall-season launch.

You may also see an ad for the same show if you put in the words “prison” or “prison guards.” The promos will let viewers watch clips and get other information about the program. Fox has made deals for placement with major search engines as part of a program that also targets numerous Web sites with very specific content developed by network marketers assigned to work on just that Web site.

It’s all part of networks’ expanding efforts to promote TV shows in an increasingly

competitive marketplace on multiple distribution platforms through everything from long-form on-air promos to guerrilla marketing. Last year ABC was able to funnel its marketing resources behind “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” and used gimmicks such as signage on dry cleaning bags. Those shows became hits.

“These alternative things got us a lot of attention,” said Mike Benson, senior VP of marketing for ABC Entertainment. “This year we’re in the weird position where I don’t want to talk about anything because I know my competition wants to know what I’m doing. I know they’re looking for their dry cleaning bag.”

Viewers this fall will see promos for new shows-sometimes even entire pilot episodes-via cable, DVD, the Internet, blogs, e-mail, podcasts and even video-enabled T-shirts. They’ll be in locations such as ballparks and college campuses, on planes and cruise ships, in theaters and on city streets, highways and shorelines. Messages will be imprinted on everything from nail files to trashcans to dollar bills and, yes, even dry cleaning bags.

The point is that it is no longer enough to just promote on a network’s own air.

“We have to do this in order to really reach the audience that we have to reach, so we’re not just preaching to the choir,” said Chris Carlisle, executive VP of marketing for Fox Broadcasting.

It is a particularly acute situation this fall, with summer viewing down on the broadcast networks. “It’s been a tough summer and yet if you keep plugging away at certain shows you can accumulate enough gross ratings,” said Vince Manze, president of The NBC Agency.

“The key is you need to be everywhere,” he said. To make that happen, NBC has increased its off-network budget by about 30 percent, Mr. Manze said. Other networks are also giving their off-network efforts higher priority, with Internet budgets up and spending on print program listing declining.

Often the marketing dollars are flowing to sister companies. “One of the most important things that we do now is leverage our corporate assets and platforms and get the word out,” Mr. Carlisle said of Fox.

For instance, all 24 of the Fox Cable networks will air a 90-second simulcast preview of “Prison Break” in the commercial break closest to 8 p.m. (ET), during its premiere tonight: “As much as possible, really roadblock across our assets, our channels, and really try to entice people to see this big event,” Mr. Carlisle said. “In today’s market, with so many channels and choices and Internet and cellphones and back-to-school and all that competition, it’s got to be an event or else you’re not going to stand out.”

For NBC Universal, which is coming off a difficult year, the fall launch is a corporate priority, so NBCU divisions have been matched with NBC shows. The Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Fla., has an attraction offering viewers a sneak peek at “Surface,” which the network considers a family show. Mr. Manze said the screenings have been popular and have been expanded. Visitors get an item of “Surface” merchandise and a comment card for feedback that goes to the NBC research department.

NBC, like the other networks, is doing street-level marketing. For instance, it is sending out teams wearing shirts with thin video screens showing scenes from NBC show “My Name Is Earl.” NBC is also putting stickers on dollar bills in 15 markets where it owns stations to promote “Three Wishes.” The stickers urge people who find the money to use it to do a good deed, which is in keeping with the spirit of the show. Network representatives will randomly use the dollars to buy gasoline or groceries for others.

The networks also are buying ads on cable, and for CBS, the networks owned by Viacom are attractive. “They are happily some of the best-delivering networks for our target demo, so we do a lot of stuff with them,” said George Schweitzer, president of the CBS Marketing Group.

Last year NBC and ABC each spent more than $10 million on cable in August and September, according to Nielsen Monitor Plus, and Mr. Schweitzer said CBS spent a similar amount.

Fox had problems last season launching new shows after the World Series. This season, Fox is launching its shows earlier than the other networks. Its promos use the theme, “The fall season starts on Fox,” which sums up the network’s strategy. “It’s all about bringing them out, getting people invested in the shows and the returning shows, and then promoting them through baseball,” Mr. Carlisle said.

When looking for viewers online, “We sit and dissect each show and think about every single possible access point or contact point that we think can reach a segment of the audience that might be interested in this more than normal,” Mr. Carlisle said.

For its show “Reunion,” Fox located reunion .com, which arranges reunions. Promotional material for the show will be available at dozens of gatherings organized by the Web site.

Fox has also assigned producers to create content for Web sites. By working closely with the production team and talent, the network feels it can generate material that Web sites will be eager to distribute.

“Through creative and inventive ways you can really get a much bigger footprint out there,” said Mr. Carlisle, “whether it’s by leveraging our talent or access or exclusivity for a period of time. And it really pays off great dividends.”

Fox is also being aggressive in producing podcasts for Fox.com, featuring interviews with actors and producers and behind-the-scenes stories.

Fox is also culling lists of e-mail addresses from many sources. For “Bones,” for example, it’s using databases ranging from fans of actor David Boreanaz to readers of Kathy Reichs, the crime-solving author on whose life the series is based.

While consumer marketers are increasingly turning to new media to sell their products, television promotion executives insist their own airwaves remain their most valuable form of advertising.

“People write about the water coolers or the cleaner bags or the blimp or the helicopter, but let me tell you, more people sometimes read about those than actually see them,” Mr. Schweitzer said. “The major, major driver of television marketing is on-air television promotion. And the good news for CBS is that our position there is very strong.”

Over the course of a year each major network devotes about $500 million worth of airtime to promotion. Last August and September, according to Nielsen Monitor Plus, NBC’s promo time was worth $291 million, by far the most of any network. CBS’s promos were worth $175 million, ABC’s $164 million, Fox’s $68 million, The WB’s $39 million and UPN’s $21 million.

Each big network’s spending on other forms of media is between $20 million and $25 million, one promo executive said.

Promo executives said they are airing longer spots for their shows and that viewers stay tuned, rather than fast-forwarding or changing channels as they do with many other types of commercials.

“We look at the marketing of each of these shows more as entertainment content and not just selling,” Mr. Benson said. “Whether you use on-air or the Internet or some of the other alternative marketing that we’re doing, having a much more co
ntent-rich experiential tactic will allow the audience to get invested with it and share it with other people.”

While the broadcasters are doing more promotion online, they are wary of strengthening the Internet portals, which could become rivals as broadband video becomes more popular.

That means the home base for video of CBS’s new-season video is CBS.com. “We have the wherewithal to do it, we have the means to promote it. We’d like to keep building our site,” Mr. Schweitzer said. “Yahoo! AOL and Google and MSN, they all have traffic and they all do business. But we’re in business too.”

“I think you’ll see all the networks, certainly NBC, making a stronger play to control our own product,” Mr. Manze said. “Right now it’s a split between how much we need to promote ‘The Office,’ and we’ll certainly get bigger numbers on AOL or Google or those sites, versus keeping our product and controlling our product.”

Fox has the first few minutes of “Prison Break” available on AOL, and will be putting the beginning of “Kitchen Confidential” on Yahoo! The network is looking into streaming episodes of its shows online for viewers who miss them on Fox, but it hasn’t decided whether to work with an established portal or its own site, Mr. Carlisle said.

But the networks said their best weapon is video. And on their own air, they’re using longer and longer messages to get viewers involved with their shows. At CBS that means a few two-minute previews and spots that are more often 40 seconds and 60 seconds long this year, compared with :30s and :20s in past years, Mr. Schweitzer said.

Other networks are going even longer. ABC has been running a 3%BD;-minute promo for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and has similar-length spots ready for other shows. Mr. Benson said: “One of things that we learned last year is that by running longer spots we could really get people invested in the characters and the programs and what these shows were and have more fun with the marketing, use music more effectively. This year we’ve gone beyond that. “

The networks are also looking to stretch their marketing budgets by taking on promotional partners.

NBC and Mazda have teamed for a new-season initiative that inserts cars into some NBC promo spots and drives viewers to an NBC.com micro site called NBC First Look, where they can see trailers and other material about NBC shows and enter a sweepstakes. “What was cool about the Mazda thing was we came up with an idea that didn’t disrupt our creative trailers for the three shows that were integrated into the Mazda contest, ‘[My Name Is] Earl,’ ‘E-Ring’ and ‘Surface,'” Mr. Manze said. Mazda provided NBC with about $8 million in off-channel exposure, including distributing 2 million promotional CDs.

Similarly, CBS has partnered with the high-end housewares retailer Williams-Sonoma. DVDs that feature cooking segments with CBS talent and clips from CBS shows are being distributed in stores.