Lessons of Promax confab: make 'em laugh, early

CHICAGO — TV execs at the annual Promax convention here pondered the inevitable question: How to reverse ratings slippage through clever tune-in ads and promotions.

The answer: Make them funnier, air them early and run them often.

Marketing and promo types who gathered for the annual industry meeting June 4-7 complained that their own push to “assault” viewers with tune-in advertising may have backfired, leading many to simply disregard most of it.

With ads that often look remarkably alike across TV networks, “tune-ins are being used as a tool for viewers to hit the remote,” says Alan Cohen, exec VP of marketing at ABC.

“I think there is a glut of tune-in,” says Vince Manze, senior VP at NBC. “If you can’t entertain people with promos, then they’re wallpaper.”

Each year at Promax, syndicators offer marketing tips to help stations launch new firstrun and off-network shows. Execs from the six broadcast webs detail their marketing plans at affiliate meetings. Vendors sell graphics, commercials and other wares to TV and radio types.

And increasing numbers of cable networks and international TV stations send reps to find new ways to sell programs to viewers.

Biz booms

In a sign the business continues to grow, attendance was more than 6,800, a nearly 10% increase from last year’s Los Angeles meeting.

For networks, the mantra is branding, but some are more successful at it than others.

ABC has lacked a distinct identity in recent years as its emphasis has shifted from family shows that were its hallmark in past decades. But Fox Broadcasting has built a strong connection with viewers by imbuing its promos with a single-minded personality.

“Fox is branded, and that really helps them in launching anything,” says an admiring Dylan Gerber, senior VP for advertising at netlet UPN. “For a certain demo, whatever they say is new and cool gets them the benefit of the doubt, and I think the same can be true for us, too.”

Each network is trotting out its own look and feel.

CBS is sticking with the “Welcome home” positioning aimed at wooing back core 25-to-54 viewers, but will now remind them that “the address is CBS” and adopt a “slightly hipper” look designed to skew a bit younger, says Ron Scalera, senior VP, advertising and promotion.

A new bird

NBC is introducing a new computer-animated peacock character, Johnny Chimes, for appearances in promos that run with end credits, and hopes to create a merchandising business from it.

ABC will celebrate the TV habit with an irreverent campaign using lines like “Hobbies, schmobbies,” although one ad that argues “Books are overrated” was discarded after affils balked. The Alphabet web will even pay viewers, in the form of American Airlines frequent-flier miles, to watch its shows and answer trivia questions.

Fox will use talent close-ups in a new network-ID effort, while the WB will try to enlist high-school cheerleaders to spread mascot Michigan J. Frog’s “Dubba Dubba” dance.

And UPN is trying to turn its weblet status to its advantage with a campaign that goes, “Don’t call us the baby network. We’re the network, baby.”

Jumping the gun

But the noise level continues to increase, and even without the summer Olympics this year, the need to build awareness for new series has spurred new advertising earlier than ever.

NBC is running teasers for “Veronica’s Closet,” “Players” and “The Tony Danza Show” during the NBA finals, while CBS began promoting “Brooklyn South” during the May sweeps.

“Everybody’s going to be totally squeezed,” Scalera says. “Network shares are dwindling, and there are 40 (new) shows vying for attention. You’ve got to keep the message out there a long time.”

Despite fewer new shows this year, syndicators face the same tough battle for promo spots on the stations that carry their shows, competing ever more fiercely with network and local news promos for valuable slots.

“Stations are still concerned about their 11:00 news, so a lot of distributors across the board are losing primetime (ad slots) they used to have,” says Jim Moloshok, senior VP for marketing and advertising services at Warner Bros. TV. “We’re definitely on the short end of that stick.”

In response, Warners now produces multiple, more targeted campaigns to reach smaller audiences in different dayparts. “We’re taking broadcasting and changing it promotionally into narrowcasting,” Moloshok says.

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