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Brands Abandoned

Networks blur identities for short-term benefits, but there may be long-term consequences 9/09/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

With the arrival of new fall shows, TV audiences will finally see for themselves what the broadcast networks were hyping at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles. Viewers may also detect a TV-industry trend made vividly apparent at the press tour with the squashing of a frog. Or, rather, Michigan J. Frog, the Warner Bros. cartoon amphibian that had served as the mascot for The WB since the network launched a decade ago.

Back then, The WB wanted to brand itself as a destination for teens and young adults, and an irreverent logo—a song-and-dance toad—made a clear distinction between The WB and creaky networks like CBS with its unblinking eye. But nowadays, as WB Entertainment President David Janollari explained in July at the summer tour, the animated character “perpetuated the young-teen feel of the network, and that is not the image we want to put to our audience.”

Although it's not clear precisely what “feel” the network's new paint-splattered logo conveys, The WB is on a mission to attract viewers who are older—the network's fall schedule showcases veteran performers Don Johnson (Just Legal) and Melanie Griffith (Twins)—than its traditional base. The WB's willingness to revamp its brand is part of a larger movement, among both broadcast and cable networks, to untether themselves from branded identities in favor of pursuing eyeballs with whatever programming seems to work. Although the strategy could result in short-term gains, the long-term ramifications of such brand dilution remain to be seen.

“There is greater risk than the programmers may either be aware of or want to admit,” says former UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan, now a partner in independent production company Bull's Eye Entertainment.

“Programs Are Your Lead Brands”

A glance at the new fall schedule reveals the blurring lines between broadcasters.

NBC's bid for a breakout hit, My Name Is Earl, is a scabrous comedy with a main character (Jason Lee) who looks less like a soul mate of the characters on a typically nice-and-safe NBC show like Joey than an ex-con who might mug Matt LeBlanc. Even Earl's creator, Greg Garcia, says the show seems like a Fox production.

CBS is moving away from its trademark schlumpy-guy/attractive-wife comedy with How I Met Your Mother, an ensemble sitcom that seems to have escaped from an NBC Must See TV lineup of the past.

With the four main networks so close in the ratings these days, nurturing an over-arching branded identity is just not a priority. Instead of promoting the network itself or touting an entire fall schedule, the big broadcasters are concentrating their muscle on a few individual shows. ABC got great results by using that approach last year with Desperate Housewives and Lost; this year, everyone's doing it, without worrying too much about whether the shows mesh with a network's established brand.

“Now programs are your lead brands,” says CBS Marketing Group President George Schweitzer. “When [CBS Chairman] Leslie Moonves decided to put on CSI, that was not a CBS show per se, but it changed the face of CBS. In terms of a network theme, we all have them. But we don't spend a lot of time, if at all, promoting them. We just promote the quality of the programming.”

Gone are the days of network taglines and promos featuring a network's entire lineup of stars dancing around a gigantic logo. Branding “is pretty low on the totem pole right now,” says ABC Marketing Chief Mike Benson.

Not everyone agrees that giving up on an identity is the best play, though, even for the big networks. Even at the de-frogged WB, execs are wary of tinkering too radically with the network's image. “Every network would go broke if branding was thrown out of the window,” says The WB Marketing Co-President Lew Goldstein. “With all the new shows out there, if you don't have something that grounds you and makes you feel like a certain place or comfort zone to go to for a set of shows, you're in trouble.”

ABC's Benson acknowledges that the move by many networks to broaden their identities comes with risk. “I think that's a fair question. Everyone wants to grow their audience. We're all in the game of getting the most eyeballs because it's all about ratings. But I think you do ideally need to stand for something.”

But according to Steve Grubbs, CEO of media-buying agency PHD North America, Madison Avenue is unconcerned by the prospect of major broadcasters' trying to be all things to all people. “There's not the same delineation there was between the big networks,” he says. “For those Big Four, I don't think it matters to advertisers.”

For the smaller broadcast networks and the cable side, the move to broaden out from an established niche is a dicier strategy. From The WB and UPN to USA and Bravo, many networks are targeting short-term gains that may come at the expense of giving channel-surfing viewers a fixed idea of what their channels stand for.

A branded personality “is absolutely necessary for these networks,” says Schweitzer. Yet brand revamping is epidemic.

Part of the reason for The WB's new pursuit of older viewers is UPN's success with young women, who flocked to Veronica Mars and America's Next Top Model. But that coup has only blurred UPN's identity. “UPN has had the most schizophrenic relationship with the viewers since its inception,” says Nunan, the network's former chief. “Is it the black network, is it the male wrestling network, is it now the young-female network?” Given the current buzz about its fall schedule, UPN could soon become known as the Everyone Hates Chris network.

“They Are Hurting Themselves Long-Term”

On the cable side, Bravo and A&E have tweaked their programming so extensively that pinpointing their identity can be difficult. Bravo, once best-known for higher-brow fare like Inside the Actors Studio, now de-emphasizes that show and trumpets its vehicles for Howie Mandel and Kathy Griffin. A&E, once the arts and entertainment channel, now touts “the Art of Entertainment” and is the home of Growing Up Gotti.

“I think those networks are hurting themselves long-term,” says one ad buyer, who asked not to be identified. “Once you start chasing ratings, your programming is going to be all over the lot. If programming success dictates your brand, you'll have to keep changing your brand.”

It is perhaps a sign of the times that, when a network actually does attempt to define its persona, as USA Network did recently, there seems to be an impulse to keep the definition a bit, well, ill-defined. USA's much ballyhooed rebranding campaign with the tagline “Characters Welcome” left some in the industry underwhelmed.

TNT and TBS have been more effective in reworking their respective identities. The former has established itself as a home for drama (The Closer,Law & Order), the latter for comedy (Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond). “What I get upset about is, I don't think most people in television even understand brands,” says Steve Koonin, COO/executive VP for TNT and TBS. “Brands stand for something. The way you grow is by shrinking the focus.”

While PHD North America's Grubbs is comfortable with the big broadcast networks' supermarket approach to programming, he's alarmed by what's going on with smaller outfits. “Too many networks are bailing out on their niche. It's not so easy anymore to articulate what some of these networks are about. The easier it is to articulate,” he says, “the easier we can sell them in to our clients and can determine if it's the right brand we want to associate our brands with.”

Says The WB Marketing Co-President Bob Bibb, “It's dangerous when a cable network, for some quick ratings, steers off their model. It's like selling car batteries at the Gap. Somehow, it may be good for the short run, but it will chip away at what got them on the map.”

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