Rick Haskins had a crazy idea he was sure would work -- if it didn't get him fired first.
With many TV fans' viewing habits in disarray in spring 2007 following a destabilizing writers' strike, broadcast networks like Mr. Haskins' CW had the unenviable task of having to reintroduce hordes of new programs that had launched in the fall only to be yanked off the air before they could truly establish themselves. "Gossip Girl," a soapy drama featuring prep-schoolers behaving cattily was one of those, and CW executives wanted Mr. Haskins, the executive in charge of promoting and marketing all the network's shows, to pull out all the stops. "They called me in and said, "You've got to relaunch "Gossip Girl' after the strike, and you're given full creative license," he recalled. It took only four letters: "OMFG."
With so much of "Gossip Girl" based on mobile-phone texts, he and his team latched on to the idea of using phrases young "Gossip Girl" viewers used on their devices. They settled on "OMFG," which describes the connection the show sparked with fans, and plastered the phrase on promos and posters of sexy shots of the show's stars. Of course, the acronym also signified a word that is not allowed to be used on broadcast TV (and one that even cable shies away from), and a phrase that links a higher deity to a sexy TV drama. Unsurprisingly, within days Mr. Haskins had the reaction he desired.
That was nearly four years ago and today, the first marketing executive at what may well be the last last broadcast network to be launched is preparing to leave to pursue new ventures. But Mr. Haskins' work underscores how the art and science of promoting TV programs is in flux. For decades, when traditional ratings were the only currency of note, TV networks simply used promos to remind viewers to tune in "Wednesday at 9 p.m." With more viewers tuning in on new devices that allow for viewing that is tantamount to "on-demand," those sorts of messages carry less meaning to the modern crop of couch potatoes.
Mr. Haskins "has had a harder job than most," said George Schweitzer, president-CBS Marketing Group, thanks to the CW's particulars. When the network first launched, it had less of a presence in TV viewers' minds than even the most obscure second-tier cable outlet. Add to this the fact that CW airs only during prime-time weekdays on independent stations owned by other companies and the challenge that the consumers of its programming tend to be younger people who use non-TV devices to watch TV, and one could say that Mr. Haskins had his work cut out for him.
"He had to build from scratch with a lower share of voice, and he managed to create a voice and was able to make people pay attention," said Mr. Schweitzer. CBS co-owns the CW along with Time Warner Inc.
The CW construction job has had its share of watershed moments. Posters of the cast in model drama "The Beautiful Life" left very little to the imagination (they were virtually nude). Posters for an updated "Melrose Place" featured a male actor lounging with two nubile members of the cast in what was billed as "Menage a Tues" (the show was set to run on Tuesdays). A poster for spy drama "Nikita" featured lead actress Maggie Q dressed (more or less) in a short-short leather number. More recently, Mr. Haskins placed two billboards in New York and Los Angeles that read "Catch VD" -- a riff on venereal disease, sure, but also a way to get people thinking about the CW's "Vampire Diaries" (his theory was that fans would take pictures of the billboards and post them on social networks).
And in a possible display of pique, Mr. Haskins put out posters for "Gossip Girl" featuring disparaging quotes about the program from critics and advocacy groups. Little did the watchdog-group Parents Television Council know that when it called the drama "mind-blowingly inappropriate" that the network would use the phrase to drum up more interest in the show.
Mr. Haskins' belief is that TV promos need to work harder to link TV programs with current and potential viewers -- the better to spur them to watch however the show might be distributed, from streaming online video to iTunes download. With revenue from new content distributors at the forefront of most media companies' thinking, Mr. Haskins' techniques may become protocol for modern practitioners of TV-program marketing. "What is happening is building a fundamental emotional connection between your product, which happens to be a show, and the audience that is buying it, which is the viewer," he explained.
For all his work, however, none of the CW's programs are among TV's highest-rated. Indeed, several big cable networks bring in more ad cash than the CW does. The network's owners may see the CW as a place that helps boost financials more significantly from syndication and secondary distribution of its programs than it does from traditional TV advertising. (The CW is the result of the 2006 combination of UPN and the WB.)
Even so, Mr. Haskins thinks his work will prove instrumental as new digital technology forces additional change on the TV business. He still looks at TV ratings , but he also considers video streaming, Facebook buzz and much more when trying to determine if a CW program has taken off. "We're in a state of flux," he said. Putting the various pieces together will be someone else's job after he steps down later this season.