Tuning In: The Future of the TV Season and the Future of TV

Brian Steinberg on More Ads in TV Online, the End of 'Outlaw' and NBC's Odd Push for Time-Shifting

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PROGRAM GUIDE

Get ready for more ads online: The CW network, which raised eyebrows earlier this year by offering to sell packages of ad inventory in a combined TV-digital package, is preparing to release new research that could demonstrate people who view TV shows online don't need to be coddled with limited commercials, according to one media-buying executive. They'll sit through a more traditional ad break, the research is expected to show, flying in the face of conventional wisdom.

ABC's much-touted online video player.
ABC's much-touted online video player.
We've all thought that online viewers -- so prone to click-click-click away to the next interesting thing -- would never sit through more than one or two ads when watching their favorite show online, and indeed, the initial set-up of ABC's much-touted online video player has been built so that viewers just see one or two ads before being returned to their program in progress.

Now CW will likely report the opposite is true: TV fans will sit through a longer period of commercials, even when watching their show via nontraditional means. Such a finding would lend ballast to any number of efforts to jam more ads into the online-TV viewing experience. Nielsen has for months been preparing a measurement system that gives credit for the viewing of ads online or on TV -- so long as each viewing experience contains the same "load" of commercials. CW earlier this year unveiled a new system that combines sales of TV and online inventory, though this buying executive suggested the network might be using some of its online ad inventory for "make goods," or ad inventory given away to clients when a network's TV shows fail to meet agreed-upon ratings guarantees.

NBC sees the future: The Peacock network has run multiple promos that fly in the face of standard TV-network operating procedure. Watch a show like "The Event" or "Chuck" and you'll start to see promos that tell viewers the shows they like to watch are available "free" and "anytime" online. Even more surprising: a recent promo featuring lead newscaster Brian Williams telling viewers if they can't watch "NBC Nightly News" at its scheduled time they can record the show on a DVR and watch later.

It's surprising. Despite assertions they've got their minds on the future, the TV networks would still prefer the majority of viewers watch their shows at the day and time when the programs run on the boob tube. So NBC's multiple open invitations to viewers to watch TV shows in other venues tells us the networks are copping to the idea that they may as well get on board with changing consumer habits -- it's better to make a little money off of a nontraditional TV-viewing experience (there are still ads that fit digital and mobile experiences) than make no money at all. Of course, we're still waiting to see this sort of stuff on CBS, where promoting traditional viewing largely remains the goal.

CHANNEL SURFING

'Outlaw'
'Outlaw' Credit: NBC
Friday-night follies: NBC is canceling legal drama "Outlaw," according to numerous sources including the Los Angeles Times. With news bubbling that ABC is moving its Friday-night highlight, the medical drama "Body of Proof," to mid-season, the great hopes that many networks had for Friday nights this season seem to be abating. Fridays have long been tough -- many people like to go out on Fridays -- but the thinking this year was that more people might be staying home thanks to the economy. Not everyone is floundering on Fridays: CBS's new drama "Blue Bloods" is doing well. But Fridays remain a nut many networks aren't cracking. More on the calculus of canceling TV shows here.

Hallmark has a Martha problem: Cable's Hallmark Channel decided to devote a broad part of its daytime schedule to Martha Stewart-themed programming, and the gambit isn't working so well, according to the New York Post and others.

THE BIG PICTURE

Will TV's retrans battles bolster broadcast but weaken cable? That's an interesting thought being batted about by perceptive buyers and analysts in these days of what seems like nonstop flame-ups between big media companies like Fox, CBS and Scripps and the cable and satellite distributors that air their programming.

The recent recession has made one thing clear: Media companies relying mainly on advertising are leaving themselves vulnerable as consumers' viewing habits shift and marketers start to chase them elsewhere. So many of the media giants have spent the last several years trying to gain credit from cable distributors, which are increasingly being persuaded to raise the fees they pay for the privilege of running local-station feeds -- and the highly watched network programming that comes along with them.

Hold on for a second, though. Will pushing for more "retrans" revenue for CBS, Fox and the like dampen media companies' ability to secure increases for their cable outlets? After all, programming fees get pushed back on to the people who watch the programming: subscribers.

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And at a time when more people are finding nontraditional ways to watch TV -- on iPhones, the web, video on demand and what have you -- will they be willing to empty more of their wallets for the cable, satellite and telco services that they may be using less? If broadcast networks start to soak up more of the programming fees, will the same amount be left over for second-tier cable outlets that aren't part of someone's regular media diet? And will News Corp., Disney and the rest be able to get the same increases they'd like for their cable properties? Sure, Disney recently secured a nice deal with Time Warner Cable that included ESPN, but will it be able to do so in the future for Disney XD or the slated-to-debut Disney Junior? Will CBS's success in getting better fees for its broadcast network jeopardize its ability to get similar financial awards for Showtime?

Predicting what will happen in today's roiling media landscape is difficult to the point of sometimes being silly. But tighter scrutiny of personal finances and continued fracturing of audiences means the media industry doesn't have an unfettered flow of cash. If some of it goes to increased fees for broadcast networks transmitted via cable and satellite, perhaps less of it will be around for other networks with smaller audiences.

This is the first in an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.
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