Power to the ViewerNetworks ask viewers to get creative. But what happens when they don't color inside the lines? 11/24/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern
Networks like to talk about creating relationships with their viewers.
But, as with any relationship, it's all about the balance of power. In their
efforts to engage viewers by appealing to their creative impulses, networks
have been enlisting them online to contribute promotional spots for their
favorite programs. But when it comes to asking viewers to help sell their
shows, networks are still struggling to find the right balance between
empowering viewers and protecting their own content and brand integrity.
After all, no network wants to expose itself to what Chevrolet did last
spring, when the automaker invited consumers to mix music and video clips with
their own slogans to create Web promos for its Tahoe sport utility vehicle. The
ensuing barrage of anti-SUV ads lamenting global warming became an instant
cautionary tale for networks.
The networks' solution to rampant consumer creativity has been to
establish strict boundaries. The CW network has created a CW Lab Website, where
viewers can choose from a selection of video and music clips to plug into a
rudimentary AV editor to create a CW promo spot. The site has clocked some
10,000 entries since it launched in September, and the network plans to air
some of the spots early next year.
CW Executive VP of Marketing Rick Haskins calls the promos a "really fun
way of getting our viewers involved." But while fans of Veronica
Mars or Smallville may agree, many of the
young, tech-savvy viewers The CW targets could bridle at the constraints—much
like fans of NBC's The Office.
After establishing the first network-branded channel on video-sharing
site YouTube, NBC invited viewers to post original Office
promos; it aired the winner over the summer.
But the contest, which allowed contributors to use only the show's theme
song, didn't satisfy the hundreds of fans who posted "mash-ups" using
copyrighted clips from the show.
The aim of the contest was to "create the sense that viewers liked the
show and were willing to create promos for it," says NBC Universal TV Group
Marketing Chief John Miller. "You do want to try to create a relationship with
the viewer. It's all about engagement."
Joseph Jaffe, author of the book Life After the 30-Second
Spot and president of marketing consulting agency Crayon, advises
networks on consumer engagement and says marketers too often try to
"garden-create" consumer-generated content.
"When marketers, agencies, publishers or networks try to force it or
control it or manipulate it or limit it, that's when it becomes quite stale or
ineffective," Jaffe says. "Consumers want their 15 streams of fame. A lot of
these people are producing content in the hopes that a television network will
hire them and put them on TV."
Viewers as partners
Current, the young cable network founded on the premise of democratizing
media, devotes some 30% of its programming to viewer-created content and
approaches viewers as creative partners. Since February, it has solicited
viewer-created ad messages (V-CAMs), not only for the channel itself but for
five advertisers, including Toyota and Sony. The winning spots not only make it
on TV, but Current pays for them: $250 for network promos, $1,000 for
The prospect of payment likely had much to do with the fact that none of
the 700 V-CAMs submitted to Current were negative in tone or disparaged the
advertiser. But while other networks may not be looking to partner with viewers
to such an extent, they can learn something from Current about the importance
of maintaining credibility with their audience.
If viewers sense that they're being pandered to by a network hoping to
cloak itself in the latest user-generated fashion, they'll likely resent it.
Says NBC's Miller, "When you post on YouTube, you don't want to look like Mr.
In the end, networks have to learn to let go and embrace the risk to
their brands if they want to resonate with viewers and earn their respect.
Indeed, even Chevy is taking the user-generated plunge again: It's one
of several advertisers planning to field consumer-created content in their
multimillion-dollar spots during this season's Super Bowl.