The selling of prime time
Networks use synergies—and McDonald's—to grow their September premiere audiences
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/15/2002 8:00:00 PM
If watching America's favorite gross-out show alone doesn't stick in your memory, this will: a sundae comprising Oreo Cookies 'n Cream ice cream, cookie pieces, gummy spiders and "lime slime." The, um, treat, called a Fear Factor Sundae, is part of a co-branding deal NBC has with ice-cream chain Baskin-Robbins that is intended to get the American public familiar with NBC's prime time programs.
Baskin-Robbins customers also will be able to lick scoops of Will & Grace's Rocky Road of Romance, Stuckey Bowled-Over Brownie ( a reference to Ed), Pralines 'n American Dreams and Good Morning Miami Mint.
Or why not first take the kids to McDonald's to scarf down a Happy Meal and enter a contest co-sponsored by the hamburger chain and ABC, where, of course, contestants will be asked to answer 13 questions about ABC's 8-9 p.m. ET "Happy Hour" lineup.
In an age when a zillion cable networks, videogames, the Internet and DVDs compete for eyeballs, the major broadcast networks have to get extremely creative to lure viewers to regular old, free TV. That means coming up with new ways to market their programming. Doing so brings that much-maligned concept—synergy—into play.
For example, Viacom-owned CBS has put together a half-hour Survivor highlight reel called Survivor: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that will run at least 10 times on Viacom's MTV. The cross-promotion works well for both networks. It brings to CBS the younger demographic the network's own shows often miss, while bringing to MTV a program that its younger viewers will want to watch.
"This is a battle every single day to attract viewers to our network," says George Schweitzer, executive vice president of marketing for CBS. "We're all in a battle for the attention of the consumer. We are not just competing against television; we are competing against movies, records, magazines, bike-riding. We are competing for a share of leisure time."
But the MTV cross-promo is just one way CBS plans to get the word out about its fall schedule, which includes odds-on favorite for hitdom CSI: Miami, as well as Still Standing and Without a Trace. CBS will distribute millions of fall-preview DVDs at Viacom-owned Blockbuster stores, through which some 93 million consumers pass annually. The network and the Campbell Soup Co. are running an eight-page insert in Parade magazine, a Sunday newspaper insert that reaches nearly 80 million readers.
CBS will run a fall preview on American Airlines. Its plan also includes advertisements for new programming across Viacom's Infinity Radio stations, on Viacom's Paramount Home Video theatrical releases, and on screens in New York City cabs and at New York City commuter hubs. And other Viacom-owned networks—VH1, TNN and TV Land—will promote CBS shows.
CBS's adopted little brother, UPN, also has similar plans for launching its three new shows in prime time this fall: Half and Half, Haunted and a remake of the Rod Serling classic, The Twilight Zone.
UPN's promotions start Wednesday, with the season premiere of Enterprise, part of the Star Trek family of shows, as well as the series premiere of Twilight Zone. Viacom-owned Paramount is using the occasion to market its movie Star Trek Nemesis, while UPN is running a sweepstakes called "Trek to the Stars," which will send a winner to Los Angeles for the Nemesis premiere.
"This one is incredibly synergistic," says Rachel Clark, UPN's senior vice president of marketing. "It involves Infinity Radio, Paramount Pictures and StarTrek.net," all of which are owned by Viacom.
Of the traditional Big Four networks, only NBC lacks access to several other corporate-owned media partners. NBC parent General Electric owns CNBC and MSNBC, but the cross-promotional opportunities available for NBC on those networks are limited.
John Miller, co-president of the NBC Agency, which handles all marketing, promotion and advertising for the network, says "Frankly, all these things you do outside of on-air and paid media, that's the cherry and whipped-cream stuff. It's not the ice cream.
"I would love to own a bunch of radio stations and an outdoor company," he adds. "I would love it if we owned more entertainment cable. But when you have the airtime, it's your own air that is reaching more of your target demographic."
"There's no question about using your own air," says Steve Sohmer, the new executive vice president of marketing, advertising and promotion for ABC and a 25-year industry veteran, who has headed promotions efforts in the past for NBC, CBS and, most recently, Pax. "It is far and away the most valuable promotion tool we have."
The marketing heads also point out another important truism in the network promo biz: You market the shows, not the network.
"You have to find the heart of show, find out why we are all in this and then make that accessible to the viewers," says Sohmer.
ABC's big hope this year is 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, and some radio spots describe series star John Ritter as a seminal figure in the history of television comedy, apparently for his previous work in Three's Company and Hooperman. Standing out is what it's all about. ABC also is launching eight other shows, including Life With Bonnie and Push, Nevada.
But Sohmer also admits that it helps ABC to have access to all of Disney's holdings, which include theme parks, ESPN and its stable of networks, ABC Family and ABC Radio. This year, ABC held a fall-preview party at Disney's California Adventure and went on record saying it would use every Disney property to hype its fall lineup.
"We got a ton of publicity for our new shows and literally millions of dollars' worth of exposure for very little cost," Sohmer says of the theme-park stunt. "I'd like it to be an annual event."
Like ABC, Fox has a new head of marketing, Roberta Mell, who came over to the network from AOL Time Warner-owned HBO. Fox also has a multimedia empire to draw on in promoting its new fall shows, including Fox News Channel, Fox Sports Net and FX.
For example, Fox stars Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer plan to appear in the broadcast booth during a couple of Fox's Sunday-night football games. Fox aired a 24 marathon on FX over Labor Day weekend, with the 24 DVD due out in a few weeks.
The first thing Mell did when she arrived at Fox was give the network a new, edgier look. Then she made a point of instilling what she calls that "Fox attitude" of youth and edginess into every promotion the network does, including Fox's on-air promo spots for new shows like Fastlane and Firefly.
As for the smaller networks, The WB can tap into AOL Time Warner's vast media holdings, including AOL's huge subscriber base of teen-agers. This year, AOL is promoting several of The WB's new shows on AOL Teen. And during the series premiere of Family Affair last Thursday, The WB for the first time previewed the new Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which is produced by Warner Bros. and will bow in theaters November.
"Where synergistic things like Harry Potter can work, we are definitely going to take advantage of it," says Lewis Goldstein, co-president of marketing for The WB.
Still, AOL Time Warner makes The WB pay for its media just like everybody else. The network takes out ads on AOL Time Warner-owned TNT and TBS as well as on Viacom-owned MTV and Disney-owned ESPN.
When the theme parks are closed and the Happy Meal is eaten, what still really matters is that, once viewers learn that a show exists, they want to return to it.
"A certain amount of it is self-perpetuation," says NBC's Miller. "When you have shows that work, you can get other shows behind them and get the new shows sampled. All that said, it still comes down to how good the shows are."
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