"You have to under-promise and over-deliver," he says. "You have to get people to come for the opening and then coming back for more. You have to sell them the feel but not give them every great moment. If you give the audience all the good stuff [in promotions] they smell it."
It's only recently that the full cultural effect of ABC's marketing plans has hit home for Mr. Benson. "I was in Singapore and India, and when I got to Mumbai there were `Desperate Housewives' posters all over the city," he says. "You have to pinch yourself. You never realize the impact that you may have on something."
For most marketing chiefs at the broadcast networks, a hit U.S. show would suffice. All agree that the most effective tool in the box remains on-air promotions-the major networks collectively spend some $500 million of their airtime annually to promotions-but audience fragmentation and lower summer audiences are forcing marketing heads at the broadcast networks in new directions.
For one, ABC is using its on-air differently, airing longer spots to enable a clearer message. Mr. Benson says new season promotions are airing in 60-second, 90-second and even 2-minute spots. "The 2-minute spot for `Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"' really sells the emotion of the show, he says.
Over at NBC, the stakes this year are particularly high for the marketing department, given the network's problems. "When you're no longer No. 1 you have to spend more to capture lost impressions," says John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBC Universal TV Group.
The network is spending 30% more on off-channel media. It's estimated that networks spend between $20 million and $30 million beyond their own networks.
NBC's top three priorities for marketing are comedy "My Name Is Earl," thriller "Surface" and drama "E-Ring." Its second-tier priorities are "The Apprentice: Martha," feel-good reality show "Three Wishes" and weight-loss reality series "The Biggest Loser." One of this year's major trends has been the increased distribution of previews. NBC is among networks promoting its fall preview and show highlights as part of cable operators' video-on-demand offering. It is also part of TiVo's advertising showcase.
Previews of networks' new fall shows were once sent to a handful of influential folks including media, buyers and advertisers.
Now, networks are working to make sure that viewers have even seen pilot episodes before they air. UPN, for instance, is screening the pilot of "Everybody Hates Chris" for American Airlines passengers and is handing it out to youngsters at movie theaters. The marketing push is the biggest in UPN's history for a single show.
Building widespread recognition ahead of premiere dates has become much more critical than in previous years. CBS is upping the ante further, targeting specific lucrative demographic groups with previews and promotions.
The network is running promos on sibling Comedy Central to reach young men. It has also launched a retail campaign in partnership with high-end culinary boutique Williams-Sonoma to give the stores' upscale, mostly female customers a DVD promotion containing a cooking segment filmed with stars of their new shows and sneak previews of the new programs.
"Nineteen million people read the Williams-Sonoma catalog," says George Schweitzer, president of CBS Marketing Group, which orchestrates promos for both CBS and UPN.
"We won for the first time in 18-to-49-year-old women and men [for regular season programming]; now we want to push that. CBS is on the increase and NBC is on the decline-that's not by accident, that's built by programming." "Everybody Hates Chris" is a Thursday night show that could take young demos away from NBC's vulnerable "Joey," and that is just one reason for the intense marketing efforts.
The Internet has also come into its own as a mainstream marketing tool for broadcast networks.
In addition to trying to get ahead of the pack by again scheduling its shows earlier than the official new season start date of Sept. 19, Fox says it has spent considerable energy understanding how young people use the Web and marketing to them accordingly. It bought up numerous keywords such as "tattoo" from Google and Yahoo to send people to new dramas such as "Prison Break." Entertainment President Peter Liguori says his marketing team, run by Exec VP Chris Carlisle, has "always sought out the cool hunters."
This season co-marketing deals abound. NBC's Mr. Miller says the network is in talks with between 20-30 advertisers about a variety of different partnerships. The biggest is perhaps the network's tie with Mazda to create a microsite that both showcases NBC's fall shows along with new Mazda products at NBCfirstlook.com. "All the reality shows have integrated partners, and we talk to them all the time about using that for things such as e-mail blasts to store displays," adds Mr. Miller.
ABC is taking a more cautious approach. Mr. Benson says with so many marketers wanting to link into "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," the company opted to fly solo and eschew many co-marketing offers. However, ABC will work side by side with sibling Buena Vista Home Entertainment to promote DVD releases come September. Nissan Motor America is a partner in the "Desperate Housewives" release.
The WB is using talking print ads in Entertainment Weekly to promote "Supernatural," the network’s entry in the spirit world race