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Yes Virginia, there are network TV brands.

Whether they exist and how important they are has been increasingly debated as programmers face the prospect of hundreds of new TV channels, video-on-demand and menu-based TV navigation systems.

TV programmers are realizing the importance of a brand in a crowded environment of virtually unlimited TV choice. And TV brands are some of the most powerful consumer brands in America, according to the findings of a Young & Rubicam BrandAsset Valuator study, provided exclusively to Advertising Age.

The study, which measured the more than 6,000 brands among 30,000 consumers in 19 countries, identifies a variety of the key measures of a brand's strength, including its familiarity, relevance, esteem and differentiation.

To locate a brand's potential, Y&R devised a "power grid" showing the relationship between perceived vitality and stature. Using the power grid analysis, NBC ranks as the most powerful network brand in the U.S., above others in stature and leading the Big 3 network brands in vitality. Only CNN, Fox and MTV are perceived as having greater vitality.

The finding is remarkable on several fronts, not the least of which that Y&R fielded the study in the fourth quarter of 1993, when NBC's prime-time share was near its lowest.

"What we are seeing is a profile emerging from a period when NBC was really in the toilet and suffered from a ratings decline that was the worst of anytime...," said Mark Messing, account managing director of Y&R, New York.

Currently, NBC is doing much better in prime time, averaging a 12 rating through the first four weeks of the prime-time season, tied with ABC for first place.

While Y&R has not yet fielded a follow-up study, Mr. Messing said NBC's brand probably has grown even stronger.

Y&R executives said the data are not intended to be looked at as a horse race, but in terms of each brand's relative position, to determine how its potential can be maximized.

For example, of the network TV brands measured, Barry Diller's QVC home shopping channel ranks relatively low in both vitality and stature, indicating it has significant growth potential.

(Y&R execs noted the findings were obtained before Mr. Diller began fine-tuning the QVC brand.)

MTV, near the top in vitality, is below the 50th percentile in stature. That finding shows while respondents believe the network is thriving, they don't see it as having much stature.

To understand why, Mr. Messing suggested looking at the measures' subcomponents: esteem and familiarity. That also explains why the Big 3 networks rank above all others in stature: familiar and esteemed.

Conversely, Mr. Messing said a brand's vitality is a function of its perceived relevance and differentiation.

"MTV is very differentiated, but most of the respondents found it relatively low in relevance," he said, noting that the survey measured only adults ages 18-plus. If younger viewers were added to the survey, he said MTV's relevance score probably would be higher, as would its esteem and familiarity.

"I don't think anybody knows precisely why [NBC ranks higher than ABC and CBS]," said Mr. Messing. "Clearly, there is a historical factor ... And then there are other things as simple as the NBC chimes and the peacock. Those things are more subliminal."

But others believe another factor may be NBC's off-air marketing and line-extensions. Both CBS and NBC have aggressively marketed their brands off-air, with great success, via a wide range of promotions. NBC has a more tangible presence off the broadcast network, not the least of which are the letters NBC in its CNBC cable channel moniker. That's something ABC has failed to reinforce via its sister cable channels.

NBC also is migrating the NBC brand name in virtually all its new media businesses, including place-based network NBC On Site, desktop news service NBC Desktop Europe's NBC Super Channel, Asia's ANBC and Latin America's NBC Canal de Noticias.

Joe Mandese coordinates MediaWorks.

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