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If you want to get a peek at NBC’s new sitcom Whitney and you’re a cable subscriber, you’re in luck. The network plans to build buzz—and an audience— for the comedy by making it available via video on demand a week before its Sept. 22 broadcast premiere.
Fall is the time when the broadcasters hope to beat back their cable competitors after a summer when cable networks like USA and TNT schedule their original shows against reruns on the Big Four traditional, overthe- air networks. But at the same time, broadcasters are increasingly turning to cable to promote their shows.
Tune-in advertising has become a several-hundredmillion- dollar business for Comcast, according to Mark Altschuler, VP of national ad sales at Comcast Spotlight, the local ad sales unit of the nation’s biggest cable operator. Tune-in is one of the top three categories at Spotlight, behind autos and neck-and-neck with political.
“We’re up substantially in broadcast as a subset of the total tune-in,” says Altschuler, who adds that tune-in activity increases in September around the fall launches. “We’ve been tracking up for four or five years. Every year, we’re adding on 5% to 8%, to as much as 10% on the broadcast networks.”
“The best advertising for television is on television. Totally hands down,” says George Schweitzer, president of the CBS Marketing Group. These days, most broadcast shows have found their way to cable. “We’re following our audience and that’s what we buy.”
For CBS’ comedies, a network like TBS, which airs reruns of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, is a good fit. For its procedural dramas, TNT works. “Ted Danson coming to CSI is being advertised in Law & Order on TNT. That’s a good place for it,” Schweitzer says.
CBS prefers to buy airtime directly from the networks, but goes to cable operators when networks balk at promoting competitive programming, Schweitzer says.
Altschuler says ABC and NBC have very aggressive and large schedules with Spotlight. CBS got in early and was the first of the broadcast networks to step up this year, and its spending is up again. A Fox spokesman says cable buys are not a big part of the network’s media mix promoting fall premieres.
Cable operators take TV promotion very seriously. With cable networks, the higher their ratings, the higher the price for spots, giving them great incentive. Unlike individual cable networks, Spotlight promises that its tune-in advertising will include day-and-date information so viewers won’t have to guess what time the show being promoted airs.
Operators such as Comcast also work with cable’s national sales organization, NCC, to analyze viewing data to figure what a viewer of one network watches on other channels. “We now know how to pull them in, so we’re targeting 12, 15, 20 networks deep around a media schedule that assures the advertisers, the network, that they’re going to reach consumers that have a high propensity for watching their show,” Altschuler says.
Cable operators have also created interactive opportunities that work particularly well for tune-in, starting with ads embedded in interactive program guides.
“What we found is there’s so many options for the consumer that somewhere between 80% and 90% of our digital consumers tell us that instead of surfing channels now they surf the guide,” says Chip Meehan, VP, Spotlight Integrated Media Sales. “We’ve been able to leverage an ad unit which appears in the listings by time to great effect.”
“We do a lot of program-guide buying,” says CBS’ Schweitzer. “We think that’s very important.”
Comcast ads can also “telescope” to allow viewers to opt to see an extended video clip from a show they might be interested in—or, in the case of Whitney, the entire pilot. This telescope option applies well to TV because of the content programmers can make available via VOD. It can also allow the viewer to set up a reminder that will appear on-screen when the show airs, or have the viewer’s DVR record the show.
New applications made possible by the EBIF-enhanced TV standard allow the operator to create an on-screen overlay that gives the viewer remind-and-record options while watching a promo. “Hopefully, by the end of the fourth quarter, you’ll be able to go from a banner or 30-second spot telescoping to a VOD asset. At the end of that VOD asset, you’ll be able to then decide that I want to set a reminder or a recording for that show,” says Meehan.
But while the technology is cool, a traditional tune-in campaign is still the key. “None of these products are available or are even effective without the centerpiece being a solid core 30-second, tune-in schedule,” says Altschuler. “That’s the thing that drives the message. And then the rest of these things on top really just enhance it. This is a classic case of media integration and it’s a classic category for it because the networks are generally hip to the products.”
Last spring, NBC used VOD as a part of its promotion for The Voice. “There were VOD assets for each of the three judges,” says Altschuler. “There must have been 40 different pieces of content altogether that were on Comcast. We had a 30-second campaign that was incremental to their national media that telescoped people directly into that VOD content within our plant. Also, as we got within 24-48 hours of the actual linear premiere of the program, all of the 30-second spots that promoted The Voice had a remind/record functionality.”
While Comcast controls NBC, ABC and CBS will also deploy advanced applications this fall. “It’s an equalopportunity field out there,” Altschuler says. “We will take the same opportunities to NBC we would take to everybody else.”
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RELATED: Here's What TV Execs Want to Know This Fall