Agencies guide TV travels

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Every fall, a handful of media agencies get into the tour business, publishing guidebooks for the upcoming fall TV season. They're called "Insider's Guide" or "Prime-Time Preview" or "Programming Report," and what they do is draw a roadmap detailing the new shows coming out in the fall and old shows being renewed. They also analyze the broadcast networks' strategies and predict successes and failures. The books are created for clients who want to know where to spend their media budgets.

"They are mainly for our clients," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, VP-director of Bcom3 Group's Starcom Entertainment, Chicago, who oversaw the creation of her agency's book. "And I send them out to a handful of talent agents from William Morris [Agency] or ICM, because we work with them and they can get a sense about how we look at their shows."

This year, Advertising Age selected five sample guides from the 2001-02 season to offer in their way a glimpse of agency thinking and how it can affect the coming season. We looked at the quality of the presentation, the intelligence and the accuracy of the predictions.

To start, Zenith Media has the best cover. It is an artful parody of "Weakest Link" with anthropomorphized network logos as competing guests. The text, on the other hand, contains observations that are careful and obvious, such as the following: "This was a season of successes and failures." (No kidding.)

However, Zenith, owned by Cordiant Communications Group and Publicis Groupe, boldly predicts hits and "longshots" for 2001-02.

Wrong on `bernie mac'

Zenith's book predicted that the weakest link last season would be "Bernie Mac" on Fox. "This series is not compatible with the lineup for this night and may have difficulty finding an audience." The reality is that "Bernie Mac" has been a modest hit, scoring 9 on household shares, according Nielsen Media Research.

On the other hand, Zenith touted CBS' "The Education of Max Bickford" with its highest rating. "Perhaps one of the best new series of the season," Zenith gushed. The reality is that Max is doing fair, but not gangbusters. Zenith inaccurately predicted that CBS would be the No. 1 network, with NBC at No. 2, ABC at third place and Fox fourth, the WB at fifth and UPN at sixth. (So far, NBC has an 8.8 household rating vs. CBS' 8.1 rating, from the TV season spanning Sept. 24 through April 18, according to Nielsen.)

TOO CAREFUL

Zenith's book is informative, easy to read, but much too careful and measured to differentiate itself from other advice-givers. It is the Frommer's travel guide of prime-time books-zippy, stylish. With nice cover art, it will surely get you where you want to go, but it will not take you off the beaten track.

At 256 pages (about twice as big as the average), the book of Aegis Group's Carat is impressively bulky. But a closer look reveals that pages are single sided, and program descriptions take up an entire page, as does each chart. The tome is especially clunky because it is bound to read sideways (the book also is available on CD). The analysis of programming trends, network prime-time strategy and night-by-night analysis is reasonable, but not very bold.

Carat, however, does make unflinching predictions. Under the category "Needs improvement," it essentially gave thumbs down to currently prospering "Bernie Mac," ABC's "According to Jim," and WB's "Reba." It also predicted that CBS and NBC would tie for first place with a 14 household share.

Overall, the Carat book is educational but does not deliver the kind of risky insight or opinion that would mark it as anything more than an authoritative Michelin travel guide, complete with detailed maps and atlases.

If you have a copy of Universal McCann's "2001 Insider's Report," hold onto it. It's a collector's item, the last one created under the watch of Bill Cella, Universal McCann's longtime chief of broadcast.

Mr. Cella has moved on to Interpublic Group of Cos. sibling Magna Global, and it remains to be seen if Universal will maintain his high publishing standards. The Universal book is a nice neat package, brochure style, with lively graphics, an ice blue color scheme and easy-to-read charts. That's also the problem-it is mostly charts and not much detailed analysis. Lots of non-judgmental capsule show summaries here.

The book does make new-show predictions, in a chart of course, and with just a few gaffes. For example, Universal predicted that "Bernie Mac," "Undeclared" and "24," modest successes on Fox, would be canceled. It pegged NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and WB's "Reba" for cancellation. All of these shows are still up and running.

The Universal McCann guide can be likened to a Fodor's guide- dependable, classic but again with no backroads maps.

Omnicom Group's OMD USA has put out a book that offers little in the way of production value. It is just a snap-bound batch of copied colored pages, but what it lacks in presentation it makes up for in intelligence.

This book offers a smart "What's Hot & What's Not" page under which it lists such trends as "addressing the audience," in other words voice-over narration in shows, which it judges to be so hot they're "still burning." And its nightly analysis contains predictions that are succinct and sharp. Its show predictions appear to be the most accurate, with "Crossing Jordan" rated as a strong show and "Reba" as borderline, which is better than predicting cancellation. The OMD book is much like the "Lonely Planet Guide" to the U.S.-it is smart, witty and wise but lacking in some details.

deep analysis

Finally, the best book of the bunch is Starcom's comprehensive "Insider's Guide, 2001/2002 Television Season." It is beautifully put together, ring-bound with hardboard cover and section tabs. It starts off with a deep analysis of network strategies, including developments in interactive TV such as Wink enhanced ads and TiVo.

There's a well-turned-out essay on the WGA and SAG strikes and their effect on broadcasting; a People-like section on TV stars called "The Ones to Watch"; there's a section called "Key Contests," which pits competing shows in the same time slots on different networks. The book even gets down to evaluating the strengths of the writers working on the new shows and episodes.

It's a book that can be read by insiders and outsiders. Most importantly, it's a book that's not afraid to take a stand. Just check out this excerpt from an essay called "Who Needs a 30-Second Spot?":

"In the end, overdone product placement will eventually starve itself out of the market, and only occasionally will a barrel of Mountain Dew and Doritos emerge from the forest to feed hungry `Survivor' contestants."

SOLID WRITING

Now that is good, solid and savvy writing, and it's coming from the heart of corporate marketing, which is hard to believe. Starcom's "Insider's Guide" is thick with this type of prose. Who wrote it? As usual, a group of media researchers at the media shop. But that last line in particular was penned by none other than Laura Caraccioli-Davis, VP- director of Starcom Entertainment, who oversaw the book's production.

"John Muszynski [exec VP-chief broadcast investment officer of Starcom Worldwide] says to me, `You know, Laura, if you are going to put out a book just like everybody else's, don't bother,' " says Ms. Caraccioli-Davis. "He says, `If you can put out a book that is bold, then that is the book I'd want to read.' We took it upon ourselves to write a different book, and say it the way it is."

And "say it" they did.

The Starcom book is very much like the critically acclaimed "Road Trip USA" by Jamie Jensen, because like the travel guide, the "Insider's Guide" shows you the highways and the byways of the upfront season, and it speaks to everyone from the low-budget crowd to the moneyed.

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