Nets use TiVo-busting tactics by airing shows twice weekly

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The inexorable march toward consolidation rolls on. General Mills is the latest marketer to announce a cutback in its product portfolio, eliminating about 400 smaller and less profitable items. The ostensible reason for the move is to free up more marketing money for its big, successful brands. But as we noted when Hershey and Heinz went through the same winnowing-down process, they cut back on their overall spending.

Back in 1999 Unilever started the cutback trend by eliminating more than 1,000 lesser brands from its worldwide stockpile-"a startling admission that marketers are finally running out of anything meaningful to say about many of their products," I said at the time. "What they do say often resonates so poorly with most consumers that their messages are falling on deaf ears. What consumers-or viewers or readers-want is substance, and what they're getting is too often pabulum."

Those words, as I alluded, also apply to TV shows. The networks keep bombarding us with highly forgettable new programs every fall to replace other shows that we weren't even given a chance to forget.

Now, the TV networks seem to be applying the lessons that the consumer goods marketers have learned. They're cutting down on the number of programs they're airing and giving their winners additional exposure.

What have they got to lose? With viewership continuing to decline, they couldn't do any worse by scheduling the same episode of their most popular shows two-even three-times a week.

TBS has hit the jackpot by showing two episodes of "Sex and the City" in two different time slots each week. And TBS sells advertisers a cumulative number for each two segments. Last season, Fox introduced its new show "The O.C." by running it three times a week, and this coming season, NBC will air "The Apprentice" on Thursday and Saturday. And CBS is calling its 9 p.m. Saturday hour this fall "Crime Time Saturday," during which it will repeat one of the six crime dramas aired in prime time.

Pretty convoluted, if you ask me. Instead of camouflaging its tactics, CBS and the other networks should make their strategy abundantly clear. That's because if the viewers are aware that their favorite show is on twice in the same week they can probably find the time to watch it on one of the days, and there's a good chance they won't bother to TiVo it. I'm not talking about TiVo zealots here (you know who you are) but casual users and those thinking about adopting TiVo.

I'd hate to see NBC's "Joey" go the way of the "Seinfeld" alumni shows because of a lack of trial. (Of course, if "Joey" is a stinker, it would go down the drain twice as fast if it were shown twice a week.) A less publicized new program would gain even more from multiple showings.

Just as consumer marketers are able to pour more money into their mega-brands by doing away with their smaller ones, the TV networks would be able to lavish more promotion on their winners, making them even bigger mega-hits. Viewership would actually increase because showing "The Apprentice" twice a week will attract more viewers than airing it once and, say, continuing to show "Come to Papa."

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television, was quoted in The New York Times as saying the idea of weekly repeats "makes economic sense, and it makes ratings sense."

And it makes TiVo-busting sense.

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