In the 52-week TV season, it's never too early to promote. During the season finale of The West Wing
last May, for example, NBC ran promos for Rob Lowe's new legal drama, The Lyon's Den, even though its premiere was some four months away. With Lowe's status as a West Wing
alum, it seemed the perfect opportunity for NBC to start pitching Lowe's new show to a targeted audience, says John Miller, co-head of The NBC Agency.
The perfect opportunity? Gee, the fall season doesn't even begin until the week of Sept.21.
But NBC isn't the only network to take the earlier-is-better approach. All of the broadcast networks have been promoting their new fall shows practically since their entertainment presidents walked off the upfront stages in New York in mid May.
"It's increasingly difficult to get your share of voice in the fall. The amount of noise is incredible," says Jack MacKenzie, senior vice president of entertainment for Frank N. Magid Associates. "Any kind of building you can do now, whether it adds 5% or 10% of awareness, that might mean great success to some people."
Mike Benson, ABC's senior vice president of marketing, advertising and promotion, says fall promotions have been showing up earlier on network schedules each year, this year even a little sooner than usual. ABC, which has seven new fall shows to promote, has increased the number of promos it is running for the shows by 10 % to 15% this summer.
Since ABC launched Who Wants To Be a Millionaire
in summer 1999 and suddenly found itself with a huge hit—a phenomenon repeated by Survivor
on CBS in 2000 and American Idol
on Fox in '02—the broadcast networks have realized that summer is the time for reality megahits.
More than that, they have learned that keeping their summer schedule loaded with originals helps keep their audiences from drifting off to see what's on cable. Repeated dramas tend to lose some 40% of their audience—with closed-episode crime shows like Law & Order
the notable exceptions—so the networks need a new way to keep their viewers tuned in from Memorial Day through the end of Jerry Lewis's Labor Day telethon.
Although summer's reality schedule is a relatively new trend, networks always have relied on big summer sporting events to help them promote. Early this summer, ABC had hockey's Stanley Cup finals and the National Basketball Association finals, low-rated as they were, and NBC had a highly rated Belmont Stakes, which featured a Triple Crown contender, and golf's U.S. Open. In all four events, the networks aggressively aired spots for new shows. NBC touted Whoopi, Happy Family, Coupling, Miss Match, Las Vegas
and Lyon's Den
while ABC promoted Hope & Faith, I'm With Her
and It's All Relative
In midsummer, NBC will air the key Wimbledon matches (shared with ESPN and ESPN2, like the U.S. Open golf tourney), and CBS claims the U.S. Open tennis tournament over Labor Day, leading right into fall premiere week. For sports enthusiasts, those are must-see events. For marketers, they are perfect vehicles for enticing promos.
The danger in promoting shows so early is overexposure; seeing the same promo over and over again tends to build ennui, not excitement.
So the networks' overall strategy is to build interest incrementally until September. Spots that run in late May and early June tend to be more conceptual. Spots running in August are more specific and include dates and times.
"It's probably one of my biggest concerns that we don't burn out a show by the time we've launched it," Benson says. "What we'll do over the summer is take a variety of tacks. We don't want to oversaturate by airing the same jokes over and over again so people feel like they've already seen the show."
In this summer of reality, the promo challenge is magnified. Marketers essentially are faced with promoting two new seasons of programming at the same time: summer and fall. And they need to accomplish that with the same amount of promotion time available: six minutes per prime time evening, NBC's Miller estimates.
"To a degree, what makes it palatable is that we aren't promoting too much of the underlying schedule," he says. "Right now, we are not doing too many individual spots for repeats."
CBS has the least amount of original programming airing this summer, although July will see the launch of Big Brother 4
three days a week as well as Simon Cowell's Cupid
on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET.
But what is to CBS's best advantage is its large audiences, who, atypically, are watching repeats. Indeed, repeats of Everybody Loves Raymond, CSI, CSI: Miami
and Without a Trace
have been topping the ratings charts this summer, even as NBC and Fox are awash in originals.
"We're consistently buying outside media to promote our shows, but the good news is that, each year, as our own air becomes more valuable, it balances the purchasing of other media," says George Schweitzer, executive vice president of marketing for CBS. "This year's summer ratings are higher this summer than last, so we have a higher base to work from."
Or, if 14 million people are watching a repeat of CSI, who needs another reality show?
Schweitzer, one of the winners of a Promax Brand Builder award this year, says, "I remember the unofficial start of the fall promo 'season' used to be July 4, but it's gotten earlier and earlier the last few years to the point that now it's a race to see who can get their promos on first."
Fox approaches all promotion show by show and also tends to approach promotion in phases, says Roberta Mell, Fox's executive vice president of marketing, noting "We had been very focused on promoting [new summer reality show] Paradise Hotel
until the premiere, and then we ran a two-minute promotion for [new fall series] The O.C.
within that premiere." Fox is launching its new season in stages this year, premiering The O.C.
on Aug. 5, so getting the word out on that show is somewhat more urgent. The network also may launch some of its returning series before Nielsen's "official" season start date.
UPN has a tough time promoting its new season because it has only 10 hours a week to do it. So it presses hard to get its message out in other ways—namely, through its parent company, Viacom, which owns three cable networks that cater to UPN's desired young, hip audience. That fact serves UPN even better than it does CBS (or any other broadcast network)—although MTV has been a good promo partner for CBS's Survivor—because the audience composition for UPN is similar to that for MTV, BET and VH1.
Viacom uses its synergies most dramatically for CBS, though. In September, it will give away 3 million to 4 million DVDs hyping CBS's new season through the 5,000 Viacom-owned Blockbuster stores nationwide. "It's the old sales technique," says Schweitzer. "Get the product into the consumers' hands. And you know people coming into Blockbuster are entertainment-oriented. We figure, when you want to catch fish, you go where the fish are."