"The strike has clearly challenged us to approach the TV world a little differently over the next weeks," said Eric Blankfein, senior VP-channel insights director at Horizon Media. "We are looking to provide our clients with alternatives in reaching their audiences at a crucial time of year. Retail is so focused on fourth-quarter results that we can't afford to have a drop-off in audience delivery." The strike offers good reason to evaluate and consider moving some clients into venues such as cinema, radio, digital and print, Mr. Blankfein added.
The networks' inventory of ad time is already particularly tight, owing to the erosion of live viewing this TV season and last. For the first five weeks of the new TV season, live ratings among adults 18 to 49 were down 11% on the broadcast networks, according to Steve Sternberg, exec VP-audience analysis for Interpublic Group's Magna Global.
A ratings drop now will only thin out inventory. Networks "still have audience delivery units they owe people for," said Steve Kalb, senior VP-director of broadcast at Mullen.
When the Writers Guild of America last went on strike, in 1988, broadcast TV was the dominant way marketers reached the masses. But today advertisers can cobble together that reach themselves from a dizzying number of media alternatives that have cropped up in the past few years, not to mention reliable standbys such as print, radio and outdoor.
Broadcast networks have indicated they have enough original episodes to get them through the holiday season, but buyers are concerned that ratings will slip as more repeats make their way into the schedule, crimping marketers' ability to reach consumers during the all-important holiday sales session and beyond.
Initial signs of strain are already starting to surface. Ratings among coveted demographics for "The Tonight Show" and "Saturday Night Live" -- both in repeats because of the strike -- showed double-digit declines the week of Nov. 5. Meanwhile, one out of four adults surveyed in a poll by WPP Group's MindShare said the strike would affect or change their viewing habits. The poll found that 25% of the sample would "most likely" turn to books, magazines and newspapers if a favorite show was not on the air.
Buyers at Mullen are in the market for "scatter" ad time for as early as January 2008. "There may be certain clients that downplay prime time in exchange for other dayparts," Mr. Kalb said, since broadcast-network programming in January could contain far fewer original episodes than it does now.
No doubt the strike has other media outlets licking their chops at the idea of getting a piece of broadcast TV's billions. "We don't want to exploit the writers strike, but we want to be able to be a partner the industry can look to if they're concerned about television underdelivery," said Mark McLaughlin, VP-audience strategies at Yahoo. A spokeswoman for Univision said the Spanish-language network is emphasizing its 52-week schedule of original programming to media buyers.
Matthew Warnecke, VP-local and national radio for WPP's MediaCom, said he has not yet seen a shift out of broadcast TV into other media as a result of the strike. But, he said, "that doesn't mean everybody is not talking about what we need to do if ratings tank."
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Contributing: Nat Ives, Abbey Klaassen and Andrew Hampp