Networks add alternatives to traditional on-air promos

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With around $2.8 billion worth of free airtime at their disposal, the broadcast networks would appear to have all the marketing muscle they need.

But this year TV-marketing gurus are looking beyond their own airwaves and employing some nontraditional tactics. With broadcast viewership in decline, the networks can no longer depend solely on promoting their new shows with their own on-air promotions, as they need to reach people who aren't watching TV.

TV executives insist on-air promotions will remain as important as ever, but admit they're also employing some nontraditional tactics.

Of all the networks, ABC has been forced to be the most creative, given its ratings have lagged behind the others. For the first time, the network has hired a handful of specialized marketing firms with experience of launching products to specific target markets.

"We're using a lot of viral- and buzz-marketing tactics. It's about using things that connect with a target audience," said Marla Provencio, senior VP-marketing at the Walt Disney Co. network, though she declined to name which agencies it had hired.

Ms. Provencio and Mike Benson, senior VP-marketing, will use Disney's theme parks and theaters to reach out to viewers before the launch of the new schedule Sept. 13, as well its cable and radio stations. ABC marketing executives will also be active in chat rooms, blogs and in ads that involve go beyond the banner ads.

`Lost' in america

Mr. Benson hints that "Lost," a drama centered on a group of people who survive a plane crash in a remote land, will get an off-air push. "You might see us doing something pretty interesting for `Lost.' The strategy is to target people where they're vacationing, something on the beaches around Labor Day," he said.

The network plans to shift its marketing strategy from last year's focus on particular packages on certain nights to focusing on a handful of shows: "Wife Swap," "Desperate Housewives" and "Savages," from Mel Gibson among a few others. The network will also unveil a new on-air look Sept. 19. ABC's trademark yellow and black are being traded for vibrant colors and a less-cluttered appearance.

While ABC prefers to focus on a handful of shows, CBS plans to support every program. It also has a more traditional approach to its marketing, preferring to use the major media as much as possible. "We have parts of our operation designed to take advantage of the Web and get buzz going, but not one show has made it because of Web buzz," said Gil Schwartz, CBS exec VP-communications. "TV is a mass medium. If you want six [million] to 20 million people talking about your show, you have to hit all the basics."

CBS is not ignoring the Web. One joint marketing agreement links it with Time Warner's America Online to promote its fall schedule, which evolved out of an upfront negotiation. CBS declined to reveal details ahead of the promotion, however.

The communications department is already out pitching sports magazines about its baseball show, "Clubhouse," and is brainstorming angles for "CSI: New York." The target will be "people who like Gary Sinise, people who like Melina Kanakaredes and people who like New York," Mr. Schwartz said.

The network will link with sibling Blockbuster, which will hand out free DVDs of CBS's new schedule, while Viacom Outdoor gives the eye network exclusive access to all billboards in New York's main commuter hubs during September and Infinity boosts radio presence. According to George Schweitzer, exec VP-marketing, CBS also produces a 90-minute show for American Airlines and will develop an onboard game to promote its forensic franchise, "CSI."

Universal boost

NBC will also take advantage not only of its Olympic lead in to the early kickoff of its fall season, but theme-park initiatives that have arisen as a result of its new Universal unit. John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBC Universal TV Group said the Universal Studios theme park ride Shrek will promote another Dreamworks' show, "Father of the Pride." "We'll have signs and monitors [promoting the show] at the exit of the ride," he said. The network also has a deal with Regal CineMedia that allows it to promote shows in 65 cinemas across the nation.

At Fox, the network will borrow a little HBO cool with the cast of "The Sopranos" invited to a party launching Mark Burnett production "The Casino," while the cast of another HBO show, "Oz," will star in "The Jury." Many of Fox's new shows premiered this month, and promotions, such as handing out coffee cups outside courthouses for "The Jury," and a tie in with Burger King for "Simple Life" have already rolled out (AA, May 24). Over at the WB, the young stars of its programs will appear wearing Kmart clothing in the retailer's ads and on in-store TV monitors. The campaign, the result of a joint marketing agreement , will begin in July.

Fast Facts

Average broadcast year prime time value of promos in millions of dollars

ABC $565

CBS $715

NBC $830

FOX $520

WB $175

UPN $67

Total $2,872

Estimate based on estimated primetime revenue and percent of promotional messages in prime time Source: Media IQ

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