Guest Commentary: Network TV Scheduling: A New Prime-Time Paradigm

Apr 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Last week at a Newhouse School breakfast in New York, Ken Auletta interviewed Bob Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Co. Some observations based on their discussion:
w Today’s low television ratings do not support the profitable production of quality prime-time (i.e., expensive dramatic) television programs. Average ratings have trended downwards for years as a result of the fragmentation of the viewing audience among numerous new channels, especially cable outlets. Since ratings are the revenue-generating “currency” of broadcast network television, fewer dollars are available to fund program production.
On the other hand, TV production costs have increased at a rapid rate. Airing the same program consecutively on multiple channels owned by Disney will very probably generate more ratings and revenue from each episode.
– It is possible to use the prime-time broadcast network platform as a funding and launching device for the expanded exploitation of the resulting program product; i.e., a program does not have to justify its expense in one or two airings on the broadcast network. To some extent, this has been recognized for years as programs were repeated in syndication and on cable.
However, the resulting incremental revenues and profits from these venues often went to program producers rather than the networks themselves. Moreover, syndication generally requires that a series air first for at least five years on the networks, a rare occurrence in these days of fickle viewers.
Multiple sequential airings of the same program are a kind of “instant syndication,” with all the upside garnered by the originating network. While this tactic will likely increase the audience available to the network, it will also probably reduce the potential audience to later syndication of additional repeats to local stations.
– Iger suggested a new model in which, for example, a made-for-television movie produced as a predecessor to a series could be aired on:
1. The ABC TV Network on a Friday night;
2. The ABC Family cable network on Saturday night;
3. The Disney Channel on Sunday night; and
4. ABC.com on Monday evening.
I wonder if Disney will price the broadcast premiere at a higher CPM than the subsequent cablecasts? It will also be interesting to see what sort of commercial load and CPMs are allocated to the streaming video presentation.
Since some media agencies separate buying for television from digital video, this will require a new paradigm for media buyers as well.
Iger also outlined Disney’s plan for subsequent and extensive exploitation of each program in the form of expanded revenue and profit sources from DVDs, international sales and perhaps further airings on ABC.com, video-on-demand, etc.
Iger’s vision is clear: Squeeze every imaginable drop of revenue from every production product. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was very impressed with his presentation and what I view as a clear grasp of Disney’s mission and opportunities.
Only a few weeks ago, during NBC Universal’s “infront” meeting, NBCU President and CEO Jeff Zucker announced a different but similar form of sequential platform scheduling in which the NBC series “Friday Night Lights” will air on DirecTV exclusively for 13 original episodes during the fourth quarter of 2008 and then on NBC beginning in February 2009.
Is this sort of thing likely to dilute the ABC or NBC brands? Iger says not, because people don’t tune into brands, they tune into programs. This of course has been axiomatic since the early days of television.
Perhaps building entire enterprises on individual TV programs—merchandising and local versions around the globe—is the new business model for the continued development of prime-time network television as a kind of gold standard for TV.
Many of the networks have said that they welcome further advertiser involvement in program development and sponsorship. The NBC Universal “Kings” sponsorship by Liberty Mutual insurance is an example.
However, the opportunity to concentrate ad dollars in individual programs also represents an increased risk for advertisers:
– Too much of an ad budget in one place.
– Very hard to predict audience.
– Product integration and marketing tie-ins can be of little import if a significant audience is not delivered.
There are reasons advertisers migrated from program sponsorship to scatter advertising; e.g., less risk and higher reach.
There may be opportunities in sponsorships and related upfront commitments to individual programs. However, each advertiser needs to carefully weigh the risk/reward based on its own marketing goals, corporate cultures, etc.
A couple of thoughts, and I invite your comments on these as well as the above:
– Give the local stations an early pre-syndication window to compensate them for the competitive viewing generated on the cable and satellite platforms; and
– Use the made-for-TV movies platform more often as a way to launch a series since multiple platforms reduce the risk involved in such “one-off” productions.
Gene DeWitt, an advertising and marketing veteran, blogs about media at genedewitt.com.


  1. Thank you for a great post

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  3. Great blog!! You should start many more. I love all the info provided. I will stay tuned 🙂

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