The Biz: TV's new series hunt for viewers

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The rule in the film business is the opening weekend just about determines a movie's fate. The success/failure window is a little longer for the group of new TV series launched each fall-but not much.

New shows that cost a bundle to develop yet stumble in the ratings can be yanked after three or four episodes as the critical November sweeps period approaches.

So the broadcast TV marketers try their darndest each year to build a frisson around their new prime-time entries. This year, among other maneuvers, CBS is offering free DVDs at Blockbuster locations, interactive viewing in New York cabs and joining a national pullout print ad with Campbell Soup Co.

"Every year it's the same battle," says George Schweitzer, CBS's exec VP-marketing and communications. "It's like the movies, you've got to get as many people watching that first episode."

The Blockbuster promotion has CBS handing out a DVD at the stores with clips from the new shows and some behind-the-scenes footage. It's an example of the benefits of corporate synergy for the two Viacom units. No money is exchanged. Blockbuster gets the benefit of a plug for new videos available this fall, while CBS gets distribution in an entertainment-oriented environment.

The taxi promotion has CBS experimenting with new technology in NYC cabs where touch screens are available in the back seat. There, the network will plug new shows "CSI: Miami" and "Hack," which not coincidentally features a cab driver. And the Campbell venture has the soup company funding an eight-page pullout in Advance Publications' Sunday magazine Parade that advertises a CBS show and a Campbell product on each page (CBS will run some on-air promotions in return). "The doors are always open to new ideas," says Charles Rutman, president, Aegis Group's Carat USA, who worked with CBS.

The unorthodox moves are in addition to the load of traditional promotions CBS will employ: cable TV and radio spots, ads in Gemstar-TV Guide's TV Guide and Time Inc.'s People and out-of-home promos. The other major broadcasters will use those traditional mediums aggressively as well as some other offensives of their own. Millions of dollars will be spent; a campaign for a single new show can cost up to an estimated $3 million.

"You have a limited window to get people to come in and sample," says John Miller, co-president of The NBC Agency. "After a certain point, it sort of turns over to the responsibility of the show to bring them in."

new deals

General Electric Co.'s NBC has a deal with Baskin-Robbins where flavors are named after shows. ABC's new "Happy Hour" concept, an attempt to brand an hour for family comedy, is highlighted in promos for shows in the 8-9 p.m. slot. And Fox Broadcasting Co. has heavily promoted shows during broadcasts of the summer smash "American Idol," including more than six minutes worth of spots during the two-hour finale. "It's been a great opportunity for us in terms of a showcase for our fall line-up," says Roberta Mell, Fox's exec VP-marketing.

Each network has its own promotional challenges going into this season. For CBS, it's launching four new shows in the 10 p.m. slot that it hopes will lead to higher local news ratings and a carryover to "Late Night with David Letterman." NBC has only a few new shows, but must do what it can to make "Scrubs" a hit at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday as "Friends" enters what's likely to be its last season. ABC and Fox want to avoid the massive ratings troubles of last season. Collectively, the networks want to convince advertisers the record dollars committed in the upfront-$8.1 billion for the six broadcast networks-is money well spent.

"We have made commitments to our advertisers and we have made commitments to our producers, and we have a responsibility not only to them but to our shareholders to promote these shows aggressively," says Steve Sohmer, ABC's exec VP-marketing, advertising and promotion.

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