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A Really New Season

9/22/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The upfront sales season for broadcasters was slow and uneventful. Advertisers didn’t seem too excited. Network television seemed so yesterday. Upfront ended after weeks of monotony, with broadcast networks again doing less business than they did the year before.

If the Big Four networks were an NBA point guard, Bob Costas would be suggesting wistfully that they’d lost a step. Or two. But creatively, broadcast TV is on a roll. The buzz is back. This broadcast-television season is brand new, but there is already an excitement about it that feels rare, at least in the past few years.

For the last several weeks, the stories that captured the People magazine people were not what Soprano might be whacked but whether Katie and Meredith would kill the competition. The TiVos were set to record the premieres of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Jericho and Six Degrees. The sociological deep-think centered on the race-against-race angle of Survivor. Madison Avenue was taking bets on the head-to-head battle between Grey’s Anatomy and CSI on Thursday nights.

The best NFL game of the season so far was on NBC on a Sunday night. The best college game was on ABC on a Saturday night. Rachael Ray’s syndicated talk show looks like the real, delightful deal. And a new network was launching. Make that—sort of—two. We appear to be witnessing the successful greening of The CW.

Before we start talking rally, for the first three nights of the season, broadcast viewership of the Big Four networks in the key 18-49 demo was off 7% from premiere week last year. But with so many viewing options, there’s no unslicing that pie. If broadcasters’ piece is still bigger than the rest, it wins a war of attrition.

For months, we’ve been reporting about the onslaught of innovation on the Internet, where advertising, we heard during the upfronts, is surely headed. This summer, the broadcast networks became the best advertisement for advertising on the Internet. Long before last week, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox used New Media to skillfully show off everything they’d be putting on Old Media in September and beyond.

Last week, we visited Fox’s Vanished site because we were already getting that storyline confused with NBC’s Kidnapped. But maybe that’s part of the plan. Because so many dramas this year have continuing storylines, the old networks are figuring out that viewers will have to go to the Web to stay current with storylines and bond with online communities. Advertisers are demanding that programs provide viewer engagement. So if old networks are losing viewers, it won’t pain them too much if they’re losing them to their own Websites. Cut stations in on the Web side, and you’ve got a business model.

There’s a nuanced revolution out there. Media keep reinventing themselves. The broadcast networks have been kicked around a bit. But a little creativity can go a long way toward a cure.

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