Prime time intros: Who cares?

Delayed debuts have ad executives struggling to call attention to their fall lineups

Faced with wall-to-wall news coverage, a delayed start to the season and little or no advertising to hype it, television marketing and promotions executives have reason to worry about premiere week, which starts tonight at the major networks.

There are 25 new shows, but most viewers probably can't name more than a handful. Normally, in the week before the new season, the networks are wall-to-wall promos. For the week of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, though, Nielsen didn't even issue a ratings report.

In many cases, $20 million advertising campaigns at broadcast networks have been severely diluted. Syndicated shows with rollout budgets in the $5 million to $10 million range have suffered as well. King World is extending its advertising campaign for the syndicated Ananda Lewis Show
through the end of September, hoping that, by October, viewers will finally get a chance to find it. (The show aired once before the attack.)

Most syndicated shows aren't so lucky.

Cable networks like FX, which is launching an entirely new prime time lineup this week, are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping not to get lost in the clutter or forgotten among the news bulletins.

"First of all, the tragic events supersede anything that we do here, but a lot of promotional things have just gone wrong in light of what has happened in New York and Washington," says Vince Manze, co-president of the NBC Agency, the network's in-house advertising/promotion division. "Money has been wasted, and people have been scrambling at all of the networks. We had all aimed at this one date and suddenly that date was no longer valid."

Print and outdoor campaigns, which require long lead-times, have been the areas hardest hit. Multiple-page ads in People
magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and TV Guide
and billboards and other outdoor efforts, were in motion well before the attacks. Most radio and on-air promotion has just been rescheduled. Networks that are part of larger media entities, such as ABC and CBS, are taking advantage of synergies in rescheduling.

"The good news for us, at least at CBS, is that we have a lot of flexibility because of radio and cable, which is part of the Viacom family," says George Schweitzer, CBS executive vice president of marketing. "We were able to call upon our cable and radio cousins, and they were very accommodating and flexible. The real matter was just communicating what the changes would be."

At NBC, which has six new shows—Crossing Jordan, Emeril, Scrubs, Inside Schwartz,Law & Order: Criminal Intent
and UC: Undercover
Manze says the network was able to achieve strong awareness for its fall programs during summer reality series like Fear Factor. He also points out that NBC was the first network to delay its season start. That gave marketing executives enough lead-time to change most radio and on-air campaigns.

UPN is offering a contest to coax affiliates to boost awareness of its fall launch. Affiliate general managers and promotion managers whose stations post the strongest premiere ratings win their choice of prizes, including Caribbean and European vacations.

But, with money already tight, most network and studio executives say they don't have the funds for new campaigns.

"You've just got to stay the course and be smart about what you message is, and, hopefully, you'll get a little lucky," says FX President Peter Liguori. "We are a cable network with limited marketing funds, and any idea of trying to shout louder, in what has now become a more crowded environment, means we are going to shout louder through higher levels of creativity, not higher levels of spending. We just can't afford it."

Neither can syndicators or stations. "There's just not enough money right now," says one top-station-group executive. "Stations are going to be forced to carry new shows longer than they may want to in an effort to get any kind of real feedback on them. They're going to have to invest in what they've chosen this season and take their chances with them."