However, there's a more fundamental marketing lesson unfolding. The broadcast networks can still win -- and win big -- in this changed environment. At a time when programming executives are rushing to mimic cable, broadcasters can thrive by finding a truer framework for doing what made them successful in the past -- attracting broad audiences.
What was a cable incursion has become a rout, but only because the networks have lost focus in their scramble to hold advertisers. In this time of destabilization, advertisers are rewarding cable's scaled-down audience magnets for their demographic desirability. In essence, cable has won its battle for penetration.
Stunned, the networks are attempting to change the face of programming and restore their appeal to younger audiences that advertisers covet.
That's the wrong move. While yesterday's broadcasting game -- getting your fair share of everyone -- is gone forever, true broadcasting is still possible. The networks can leverage and exploit what people have in common by shifting their focus from "entertainment" to programming that delivers feelings viewers want to feel when they need to feel them.
The networks' fundamental misconception about programming today is that people watch what they like. But "liking" is secondary to feelings people want to feel. The two are easy to confuse. A show that delivers the right feelings is likable. And consumers are notorious for saying one thing in research -- "I like it!" -- only to do something else in real life. As viewing options expand, so does the say vs. do discrepancy.
Consider the feelings in these recent hits:
* "Seinfeld" -- Unbridled self-absorption (it's a comedy!).
* "Sports Night" -- Guys' guys who care while being cute, smart and funny.
* "Dharma & Greg" -- The illogical power of true love.
* "NYPD Blue" -- Nobility in the face of everyday horror.
* "South Park" -- The truth about life isn't what "they" tell you it is; the truth is funny.
And feelings do correspond to time slots. The fit of Monday night and football is no accident. Football extends the weekend feelings of "my time," "my power," offsetting the Monday psychology of back to work in the "real" world.
To succeed, the networks need to redefine some basics. Opportunity is finding the feelings that are out there to target. Quality in a viewing experience is building stories and casts that keep the focus on the targeted feeling. Strategy is putting the feelings together with time slots you want to own. Branding is making your brand stand for the place viewers can trust with their feelings.
NEW RESEARCH NEEDED
In its "Welcome home" campaign, CBS attempts to articulate the essence of a network's role in the viewer's life; a home base you can count on in a world of overchoice. But today it's a positioning, not a reality.
Similarly, NBC's use of "Must see TV" as a brand is intended to extend the promise of its compelling Thursday night lineup (the right feelings at the right time) to deem all its programs "watchable." But the promise is hollow hype as the tag for shows whose feelings don't stick.
ABC is flexing integrated marketing muscle to tout TV. Outdoor boards promise the feeling of prime time vs. the feeling of drive time. But does ABC uniquely deliver any more than "TV"?
None of the networks can uniquely deliver on its promotional promise. One core problem lies in the research that defines opportunity and shapes programming.
Research traditionally screens ideas against each other to locate the "better" idea. With a new starting point, research could create a "feeling" structure to guide programming development. Who needs to feel what, when? How "big" are the feelings and, therefore, the opportunities? When (if ever) and how (if at all) are they satisfied now? What programming matches what feelings? What feelings at what times should be targeted to knit together a place for a viewer to trust?
With a different starting point, research can screen ideas against targeted feelings and fit concepts to available "feeling" opportunities. Research can then shift the focus from whether audiences "like" the concept, story and cast, to how these essential elements evoke the feelings the show is intended to satisfy.
FEELINGS OUTLAST TRENDS
Feelings people want to feel form the strategic foundation for true broadcasting. At the feeling level, people are remarkably similar. And feelings, unlike trends, don't change very fast. Broadcasters can find, track and own specific feelings viewers will tune in to experience.
Feelings-based strategy can unshackle broadcasters that currently have to hope production houses get it right and/or that a Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne, Tim Allen or Bill Cosby -- whose genius it is to recognize that their own feelings apply to others -- knocks on their door rather than the competition's.
At the same time, feelings-based strategy can restore the networks to the kind of programming that draws mass audiences on an appointment basis. Nothing should please major advertisers more. Despite the infatuation with niche TV, the reality is that brand stewards need broadcasting. Precious few companies can build their brands on narrowcasting.
Ms. Murtaugh is president of Murtaugh/Match Associates, Madison, Wis., a