Giving A Lift When Shows Take Off
Studios are now providing needed marketing and promo power to stations when new shows launch.
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/12/2008 8:00:00 PM
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As they approached the Sept. 8 premiere date for The Bonnie Hunt Show, the folks at Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution (WBDTD) knew they needed to do some research.
Viewers weren't familiar enough with Hunt, execs discovered, but they liked her once they got to know the new talk host. Research also pointed out that Bonnie found the most fans among Caucasian, educated, suburban women with a Midwestern sensibility. So the company decided to target its marketing at those viewers, much the way campaign consultants might seek out particular groups of undecided voters in swing states.
“All of that [research] influenced the type of marketing material we created, what we had her do and what we told TV stations in terms of where they placed media,” says Ken Werner, president of WBDTD.
Given the current state of the TV business, such initiatives are becoming more necessary. The Bonnie groundwork is only part of a larger operation at WBDTD. The object is to provide struggling stations with more help when they launch and promote new syndicated shows.
“It's about understanding TV stations' challenges, and assisting them in reaching viewers with your TV program, and doing that in a modern and meaningful way,” Werner says.
Clearly the effort is welcome. Bonnie Hunt launched with a 0.8 live-plus-same-day national household rating, and a 0.4 among women 25 to 54, the show's key demographic. Werner is confident those numbers will grow, but they are still low.
WBDTD isn't the only syndicator trying to figure out how to help struggling TV stations in a tough climate. Stations are complaining about high license fees they have to pay for shows with declining ratings, so syndicators are on the lookout for anything they can do to improve stations' investment in these shows.
These efforts are wide-ranging, including everything from aiding in marketing and research, to creating contests so stations can do more to promote shows, to customizing shows for local markets and offering stations more original Web-based content.
“It's very challenging, particularly right now. When TV stations aren't doing well, they are less anxious to spend money for programs,” says Bob Cook, president and COO of Twentieth Television. “We're doing as many things as possible to help our local TV station partners.”
To address these issues, WBDTD is restructuring the company to focus more on providing stations with targeted marketing and research services. As part of that initiative, Susan Kantor has been promoted to executive VP of marketing, and she has assembled a team around her (see related story).
“The competitive environment and challenges at a local TV station are so intense. Ken and I both believe that compelling marketing is almost as important as signature programming,” Kantor says.
Meanwhile, Werner has slimmed down the company's finance and accounting departments to accommodate his other goals. “I felt we needed to have a station relations department that takes into account the fact that TV stations are under-resourced and don't have the ability to execute in terms of marketing and revenue generation the way they used to,” he says. “That's based on two core precepts: There's more competition out there than ever, so we need to come up with a unique selling proposition for every show we pitch; and then we need to develop a marketing campaign that delivers on that pitch.”
Those campaigns will be highly targeted: “Before, we just created promotions for stations that we liked,” Kantor says. “We never found out if they were using these promos or not. Now we are constantly communicating with the stations to make sure we are giving them things they can use.”
Help Across the Board
Like WBDTD, many syndicators are changing their approach to TV stations. Twentieth Television first tries to identify a brand and then place strong marketing against that. “I tell my people to listen, listen, listen to station needs and then respond accordingly,” Cook says. “Time periods vary, demographic profiles vary, lead-ins vary—there are so many ways in which 'one size fits all' doesn't work anymore, so we really have to maximize our opportunity to grow revenues and ratings.”
Twentieth and WBDTD are also actively offering station customers online extras they can use to sell advertising. WBDTD's TMZ started online, and remains one of the best examples of an on-air, online partnership between a syndicator and TV stations. Twentieth is starting to offer stations extra content, such as bloopers and behind-the-scenes footage of shows.
“If we can give them original content that doesn't appear in the normal show, that gives them something to boast about and sell and market,” Cook says.
CBS has several new initiatives underway meant to boost stations' revenues on shows that the stations have renewed out for years to come.
“One of the biggest opportunities local stations have right now is to become a local online destination in their markets,” says John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution. “TV stations have really barely scratched the surface, while newspapers realized early on that if they didn't get into the online game, they were going to be dinosaurs in a tar pit. Stations are two years behind and only just starting to realize this.”
CBS is offering station and local newspaper Websites the “ET News Feed,” featuring up-to-the-minute online content from the entertainment magazine.
See video below:
NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution is doing something similar with AccessHollywood.com, starting this month with NBC's Local Media Division and then moving out to the rest of Access Hollywood's affiliates by the end of the year. WBDTD offered affiliates a similar TMZ “module” that stations could put on their Websites when the show launched last year.
One popular TV/Web integration drives viewers to Websites to play branded online games, something CBS' Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! have done for years.
NBCU's Deal or No Deal is offering viewers a chance to win $10,000 each week via an online giveaway available on station sites.
In fact, series host Howie Mandel showed up last week on a winner's Mission Viejo, Calif., doorstep to present him with a $10,000 check. And Debmar-Mercury's Trivial Pursuit garners all its questions via videos submitted online, and then allows those questioners to play along with the televised game and potentially win money.
Driving Traffic and Selling Inventory
Such branded Web content serves two main purposes: It promotes the show to Website viewers, driving traffic between TV and the Web. It also gives stations online content against which to sell inventory, with pre-roll, inserts and surrounding banner and skyscraper ads available. In the case of the ET News Feed, the embedded ads are national, with revenue going to CBS, while revenue from surrounding Web ads goes to the local partner.
“It's not unlike a great show,” Nogawski says. “The first person who really gets this secret down will be the leader in this arena. We'd like to think this isn't about some cute new promotional idea; we're really putting together a business plan not only to make money but to bring viewers back to television over the long term.
“The only way we're ever going to really get the information is to experiment. We'll do it judiciously. I don't want to have no return on investment, but we may end up having a lot of break-even type of experiments before we learn what the answer is.”
One such experiment involves trying a contest to help inspire more marketing. CBS ran a contest among affiliates to promote its new series The Doctors. Whichever affiliate put the most marketing muscle behind the show leading into its Sept. 8 premiere won matching marketing dollars for the November sweeps.
Still, many stations say these initiatives are a beginning at best. Providing Web content or targeted marketing materials is helpful but doesn't address stations' core challenge: acquiring television programs that get ratings but don't break the bank. Many station executives in recent years have talked about wanting to work with syndicators in closer partnership, developing shows from concept to premiere in concert with station needs and tastes.
So while syndicators may be doing more, many station executives feel they have made few strides forward in the area that really matters to them. “At the end of the day, all we want to know is what's the show, why is anyone going to watch it and why is anyone going to come back to it?” says one station exec. Validating stations' concerns is the fact that a respectable rating has yet to emerge from this year's crop of first-run shows, regardless of targeted marketing or online extras.
Two examples of station-studio partnerships that have worked in the past year are Debmar-Mercury's co-production with the Fox Television Station Group on a market test of The Wendy Williams Show, and WBDTD's work with Fox to evolve TMZ from a popular Web portal to a successful syndicated show.
For Wendy Williams, Debmar-Mercury and Fox partnered on all of the show's costs, including production and marketing. Wendy Williams ran for six weeks on Fox stations in four markets, and when it was done, all parties involved felt they had a winner on their hands. In fact, it was so successful that many Fox stations wanted to keep the show on the air.
TMZ, meanwhile, started its life online, also providing Fox with a lot of information before it purchased the show. One reason that worked is because “from the very top of the Fox organization on down, everybody felt that TMZ was a top priority,” Werner says.
Station executives say they would like both approaches to be more the rule than the exception, allowing them to risk less before launching an expensive show, but major syndicators don't seem ready to go that route.
“The syndicators' business model doesn't let them do that,” says Paul Karpowicz, president of Meredith's broadcast division. Karpowicz is working to change the model with Better, a one-hour show that offers stations two four-minute blocks of inventory plus many opportunities for local customization and product integration. (Watch a video clip of Better.)
“The big studios are concerned: If they do a deal with us as true partners and the show works, they are giving away too much of the upside,” says one station executive. “If they do it their way, they usually lose money. If one hits, it's all theirs.”
For some, the new initiatives seem like baby steps. But such developments are at least a marked step forward in a business that's challenged on all fronts.
“We didn't have these opportunities before, when it was just make a deal with the syndicator for a show and then it was all about what aired on channel 71,” says Dave Muscari, VP of product development at Belo-owned WFAA Dallas. “Today, it makes sense to be broad-minded and try to be innovative.”
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