Networks Set Fall Promo Priorities

Aug 14, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Just as the television landscape has changed dramatically since last fall, so have the Big 4 broadcast networks’ plans for promoting their fall prime-time schedules.

ABC, which has focused its marketing resources on just a few debuting shows in recent seasons, plans to share the promo love more evenly among its seven new shows and four returning hits. Both CBS and NBC are focusing their attention at first on their new drama series and then using football to promote their Sunday lineups. Fox, which has more fall momentum with viewers than it did last year, is reprising its early-launch strategy while relying on its new wealth of returning fall performers.

With so many competitive pressures from cable TV, video games and the Internet, plus a proliferation in the number of platforms networks feel they must advertise on, getting the word out about an individual sitcom or quirky new drama has gotten increasingly difficult.

“It’s much more like a 3-D chess game,” said Mike Benson, senior VP of marketing for ABC. “It wasn’t that long ago when you would say, ‘OK, let’s cut a really good on-air promo, buy a couple of TV Guide ads and call it a day.'”

Two years ago Mr. Benson and his team made headlines for promoting “Desperate Housewives” on dry-cleaning bags and “Lost” in bottles placed along beaches.

The other networks quickly copied ABC’s out-of-the-box thinking, introducing promotions on what in the past would have been considered incongruous platforms. Mr. Benson didn’t want to talk about details of his campaign this season because of his competitors, but also because of potential viewers who have grown weary of traditional campaigns.

“A lot of what we do really well is surprising the audience in unexpected ways,” he said.

Like every other aspect of the TV business, the growth of Web-based promotions is changing the traditional fall launch, said John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC Universal Television Group.

“The difference this year for us is fully embracing the digital technology and the way that people exchange information virally,” Mr. Miller said.

At ABC, this has not translated to an increase in promotional spending, Mr. Benson said. He declined to state a value for his fall budget. “It all comes down to asset allocation,” he explained.

A breakdown of the four major broadcasters’ promotional strategies are listed below.


The strategy: Aside from debuting seven new series in September, ABC is focused on highlighting its four big returning series: “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost,” “Dancing With the Stars” and the 9 p.m. (ET) linchpin of its new Thursday night schedule, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“These returning shows are just as critical as bringing in new product,” Mr. Benson said, noting that each of the series anchors a different night for ABC.

The 10 p.m. newcomers “Brothers & Sisters,” “The Nine” and “Six Degrees” “are incredibly important” because “they all follow our biggest franchises,” he said. Building strength at 10 p.m. is a plus for “our affiliates and their local news,” Mr. Benson said.

The challenge: Life got easier for Mr. Benson last week after ABC announced it is moving the debuting one-hour “Ugly Betty” to Thursdays at 8 p.m., pushing back the premiere of new comedy block “Big Day” and “Notes From the Underbelly.” The buzzworthy “Betty” gives ABC better flow on its new Thursday schedule and takes the pressure off premiering two additional comedies within the first few weeks of the season.

That still leaves ABC with 11 new and returning shows to promote, more than any other network is targeting. Plus, the network’s summer reality entries have mostly failed, giving it less on-air promo impact.

Innovative element: A four-minute music video featuring the band Snow Patrol that includes clips from “Grey’s Anatomy” summarizing the entire show’s history. Originally run on-air earlier this summer, the video is featured on various Web sites as well as ABC.com, which includes an “e-mail a friend” option.


The strategy: CBS is debuting four new shows this fall, but the biggest change comes to its Sunday night, which has been completely rescheduled except for the 39-year stalwart “60 Minutes.”

“The main focus is we have two new shows on at 10 with very strong lead-ins, and two shows at eight o’clock,” said George Schweitzer, CBS Marketing Group president. CBS will use its Sunday afternoon football telecasts to help promote the Sunday night schedule, which will include “The Amazing Race,” Cold Case” and “Without a Trace.”

All three have established audiences, so “we don’t have to explain what the show is, just tell them where it is,” he said.

The challenge: With just four new fall shows, CBS is introducing fewer new entries than any of its competitors. The debuting titles-“The Class,” “Jericho,” “Shark,” and “Smith”-are “easy to remember, and all look great on a billboard or in a print ad,” Mr. Schweitzer said.

For “Class” and “Jericho” in particular, CBS is trying to bring in a younger-skewing audience than it usually attracts, which explains its heavy rotation of on-air promotions during its youthful summer series “Big Brother.”

Innovative element: For its new legal drama “Shark,” CBS is “coolertising”-outfitting Aquacell water coolers at law offices and drug stores with the show’s logo and time slot.


The strategy: NBC is initially targeting its four new dramas for promotion, since the one-hours all debut in September.

The network’s two debuting comedies, “20 Good Years” and “30 Rock,” will get more promotion later in tune with their October debuts.

Like CBS, NBC is also heavily promoting its new Sunday night, which is being fully programmed with pro football. The network is going with a “youthful and energetic approach” to Sundays, Mr. Miller said, noting that NBC’s ability to pick the best games and the best teams for telecast is a plus.

The challenge: NBC’s lag in the ratings is always a hurdle, but that didn’t stop ABC from launching big hits in 2004. Each of the four dramas “have a highly defined look and feel,” he said. The sci fi-themed “Heroes” has gotten the full Comic Con convention and fan Web site treatment, while promos for “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” has played up the buzz around the show’s star cast and creative auspices. “Friday Night Lights” will capitalize on its football theme but still be positioned as a teen show with helpings of Americana.

Innovative element: NBC and MySpace.com have teamed for a sweepstakes that gives fans a chance to have their photo featured in the closing credits of the Thursday night comedy “My Name Is Earl.”


The strategy: With five new shows, Fox is focused on building nights using returning series as platforms to boost ratings, a luxury that Fox has not had in the fall for the past few seasons.

“We didn’t have those kinds of assets before,” said Chris Carlisle, executive VP of marketing, using the drama “House” as a prime example. For its new Monday drama “Vanished,” which is premiering this month, Fox is making sure the debut episode runs on several Web portals the day after it airs.

Emphasis will be placed on helping Thursday comedies “‘Til Death” and “Happy Hour,” since their 8 p.m. block doesn’t give them an established network lead-in.

The challenge: “Our job is to get people invested in the shows before baseball hits,” Mr. Carlisle said, noting that postseason play in October disrupts the schedule.

The early launch of “Vanished” and the returning drama “Prison Break” is an opportunity to promote in malls as families do back-to-school shopping, he said.

Without network morning, daytime and late-night blocks to assist on-air promotions, Fox must rely on other kinds of promotions, like ones planned for the News Corp.-owned Web sites like MySpace.com, to get the word out.

Innovative element: “‘Til Death” star Brad Garrett,
who has become an ordained minister through an online service, will perform marriage ceremonies for five couples at the Bellagio casino Aug. 19 in Las Vegas.