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 executive vice president of marketing and communications. "It's like the movies, you've got to get as many people watching that first episode."
The Blockbuster promotion
The taxi promotion has CBS experimenting with new technology in NYC cabs that touch screens 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 of 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, the network's in-house marketing arm. "After a certain point, it sort of turns over to the responsibility of the show to bring them in."
General Electric Co.'s NBC has a deal with ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins in which flavors are named after shows. Walt Disney co.'s ABC's new "Happy Hour" concept, an attempt to brand an hour for family comedy, is highlighted in promos for shows in the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot. And News Corp.'s 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 execuitve vice president of marketing, advertising and promotion.