Marketers Fight for Right to Buy Shows, Not Networks

In Digital World, Brands Want to Follow Favorite Programs Across Media

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

NEW YORK ( -- Want your ads in CBS's blue-chip "CSI"? Then you'll have to run some in "Harper's Island." Eager to get your message to the devotees of ABC's "Lost"? Then you'll have to buy some time during untested debutantes such as "Cupid."

content-power ratings
That's how it's worked for decades. Marketers and their media buyers are forced to agree to TV networks' condition that they take ad positions across entire schedules if they want to be in the hottest shows. Marketers' patience with this system is, however, running out, and many are pushing harder than ever before to buy programs and not networks. Yet in this upfront, the networks will still ask them to once again buy across the board -- and pay a premium to really build their brands into a show's DNA.

"This is going to be the battleground for the next few years," said one senior marketer.

Perhaps Peggy Green, the respected but publicity-averse executive at Publicis Groupe's Zenith media-buying outlet, said it best during a recent industry conference organized by TV Week and Advertising Age: "I care more about the program than the network that it's on."

Clearly, this is what advertisers are craving: With audiences following specific pieces of content -- not tuning into a network every night just because it's there -- marketers want to entwine themselves not necessarily with NBC, CBS or the CW, but with "The Office," "CSI" or "Gossip Girl."

Networks and buyers will tell you that they are able to drill down on certain shows, but there are some pretty significant caveats. "Most ad-sales teams make their customers buy through 'B' and/or 'C' inventory to get the premium 'A' shows," said Christopher Vollmer, who leads the global media practice at management consultant Booz & Co. "A common strategy for TV yield management is to give access to the best units to those that also buy other stuff, especially when there is high demand." Buyers also report that networks often charge a premium for ad plays that are tailored to specific content, or use such techniques as means to drive a higher level of overall spending.

As digital technology gives marketers the ability to be much more precise in the way they reach customers, marketers and ad buyers are even starting to think less about particular media outlets and more about ways to aggregate specific kinds of audience, Mr. Vollmer said. "It's a trend originating online with the ad networks and other big players that are offering target audiences in the form of behavioral, lifestyle and/or contextual segments that go beyond the 18-to-49, 25-to-54, male or female demos offered by the networks," he said.

Gone are the days when marketers subscribed to the notion they could simply "pray and spray," pumping a lot of TV ads across the network schedule. Now they are demanding such ideas as an iPhone application Nokia has unveiled that's related to NBC's "Heroes" -- with the hope that such associations will make fans of the shows fans of their goods and services as well.

And producers are getting on board, writing extra scenes that get posted exclusively online, or even using the web to boost fan recognition of series that may otherwise rest on the bubble. To spark buzz for ABC's cop drama "The Unusuals," creator Noah Hawley began using YouTube to release clips and outtakes. Fox's "House" recently created a web page for fans to express their regrets about a character, Lawrence Kutner (played by actor Kal Penn), who had inexplicably committed suicide on a recent episode. NBC Universal's digital unit embeds personnel in the writers' rooms of several notable shows to help create specific websites that go after "superfans" of "30 Rock," among others. NBC has for the last two years held earlier-than-usual programming meetings aimed at sparking advertiser interest in ads customized for its shows.

'Content-power ratings'
Still, pressure is building for more exactitude in a medium that has long pushed bombardment of ads as a tactic. Different media shops have cobbled together ways to measure audience "involvement" with different programs, but that doesn't create an industrywide basis for ad-buying negotiations. Publicis Groupe's Optimedia, for example, has developed what it calls "content-power ratings" that take into account not only the number of people who see a show, but also mentions in the media and Google search volume for the show in question. "In order to move the conversation, we have to start talking about a different currency," said Greg Kahn, senior VP-head of strategic insights for Optimedia U.S.

The rankings demonstrate how different the success of programs can be when other factors are taken into consideration. To get a sense of how interest in shows could differ when audience involvement is taken into stronger consideration, Optimedia's ratings have programs such as the CBS sci-fi drama "Jericho" listed among its top 25. So too is Fox's escape drama "Prison Break," which was ranked 24 , compared with a Nielsen ranking of 81 last year. "Jericho" has already been canceled, while "Prison Break" is ending its run this season. Optimedia ranked "The Office" third; last year, Nielsen ranked it No. 69. Optimedia ranked "Lost" second; in 2008, it was Nielsen's No. 22. NBC's cult favorite "30 Rock" came in at No. 14 in 2008, it was Nielsen's No. 62. Even so, advertisers may have to work harder to catch audiences as they coalesce around a particular program.

NBC MOVING UP: '30 Rock' is one of networks' many shows to jump in Optimedia ratings.
NBC MOVING UP: '30 Rock' is one of networks' many shows to jump in Optimedia ratings. Credit: NBC
Marketers "are choosing to be much more selective about where they want their brand to be," said Antony Young, CEO-Optimedia U.S. "It's more complicated. A schedule is made up for strong performers and weak performers, and we can and do want to identify the shows, particularly now, when there's a lot more program association and brand integration coming into play."

According to one broadcast executive, the networks will sell ads in specific shows to advertisers who don't want to make larger purchases, although such cases are certainly not the norm. For marketers with larger buys, networks can assist in running heavier loads of commercials in the shows the advertiser most favors. At the same time, this executive said, "you want to be able to use the good stuff to sell your not-as-good stuff." ABC, for instance, will use "Grey's Anatomy" to help it sell a lesser light such as "America's Funniest Home Videos." "For the most part, clients don't really complain about that," this executive said.

The last few years have been peppered with examples of advertisers taking big bets on particular programs. Thanks to product placements, season-premiere takeovers and web sponsorships, Nissan has built up a strong link to "Heroes," just as Verizon Wireless has done something similar with CW's "Gossip Girl."

Incomplete picture
And yet, these associations tend to represent only a small percentage of their total spending with each network, according to TNS Media Intelligence. In 2008, Verizon Wireless spent about $516,000 in traditional ads on "Gossip Girl," TNS figures show, which doesn't include the value of product integrations in the program. But Verizon's overall spending on CW in the same year came to nearly $34 million. Likewise, Nissan Motor spent about $1.83 million to advertise on "Heroes" in 2008; its overall spending on NBC in that year came to more than $157.9 million, TNS said.

Nissan declined to comment on its media strategy, but a Verizon Wireless executive indicated that TV advertisers need to use the medium for both mass awareness as well as reaching specific audiences.  "Our approach to TV advertising isn't about investing in one program heavily vs. across the entire network, but rather determining the right balance of programming that connects with our target consumer," said Lou Rossi, director-media and sponsorships at Verizon Wireless. "There is a certain level of investment necessary to deliver Verizon Wireless messages, but we will also look for specific opportunities to align with partners and create a unique experience across platforms in a much bigger way."

Others aren't convinced the movement toward specificity will result in substantial change. There's a system for buying ads that has developed over decades, and any transformation will be slow and gradual. "The granular things aren't going to represent the majority of money. It's a small part of it," said Ira Berger, director-network broadcasting at the independent agency Richards Group. "It's talked about a lot, but it's just a small part of it."

In other words, you're probably going to have to buy the whole schedule.

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CORRECTION: When discussing Optimedia US's new "Content Power Ratings," the story incorrectly said the Power Ratings in 2009 were compared to those in 2008. In fact, Optimedia compared its 2009 Power Ratings to Nielsen's program rankings for 2008. Nielsen ranked "Prison Break" No. 81 in 2008, "The Office" No. 69, "Lost" No. 22 and "30 Rock" No. 62.
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