Summer’s sizzle heats fall TV buzz

'Fugitive,' 'Geena,' 'Bette' have high aud recognition

The new TV season doesn’t launch for another month, but viewers already have an earlier-than-usual idea of what the networks have in store for fall.

According to research data obtained by Daily Variety, audience awareness of the networks’ freshman series crop is up dramatically vs. this time last year.

ABC and CBS, in particular, have almost doubled their average awareness from a year ago. The percentage of viewers who say they intend to view those new skeins has also increased at almost every network.

Web heads give credit to this summer’s roster of original programming, which dramatically increased homes using television (HUT) levels — and effectively brought more eyeballs to the nets’ early promos.

“I don’t want to overexaggerate the halo effect (of ‘Survivor’),” said CBS Television prexy and CEO Leslie Moonves. “But it gave much more exposure to our schedule than we expected.”

Stars help

The fall’s new series also boast an influx of household-name stars, always an easy way to build up instant awareness.

Viewers, after all, can pretty much figure out who’s starring in “The Geena Davis Show” and “The Michael Richards Show.” Not surprisingly, both shows rank high in awareness among new skeins.

But the early cognizance is all the more unusual given that this fall’s shows are actually debuting much later than normal, noted Jeff Bader, ABC senior VP of program scheduling and planning.

“They’re way ahead of the game,” Bader said.

Information gleaned from research sources shows that CBS is tops among the six networks in audience awareness. Influenced by an endless string of series promos during the monster hit “Survivor,” a full 25% of those polled (on average) were aware of the Eye’s new series as of Aug. 20.

‘Millionaire’ contributed

That’s up from 15% last year at the same time. “Who Wants to Be Millionaire”-fueled ABC is also up substantially, averaging recognition from 21% of respondents (up from 12% ). ABC viewers, of course, have only four new series to acquaint themselves with this year, so it’s easier to get quickly up to speed on the Alphabet’s roster.

NBC’s new series are recognized about 20% of the time (up from 18% last year), while Fox is close behind at 18% (up from 8% ). The WB is at 9 % awareness, while UPN is close behind at 8% .

Among series, it’s probably no surprise that “The Fugitive” –already a hit movie and classic TV series — leads all programs at all networks in awareness, with about 58% of respondents recognizing the title.

Name change mattered

Sources say “Bette” also saw a jump in recognition (from 20% to 45% ) after researchers started identifying the show as ” ‘Bette,’ starring Bette Midler.” According to one network exec, the show was re-identified in a telephone survey after respondents thought the surveyors were saying “Bet.”

Other shows with high awareness include NBC’s “Titans” (33% ), Fox’s “Dark Angel” (39% ), NBC’s “Ed” (28%) and CBS’ “The District” (25% ). On the flip side, new skeins such as “Yes, Dear” (6%), “Madigan Men” (8%) and “Nikki” (6% ) lag behind.

Network execs caution that awareness figures are highly unscientific means to find out whether viewers are absorbing their marketing messages.

“I think it just gives you a little benchmark of how your promotion is working,” Moonves said. “Ultimately, the idea of all this is get them to the table. Then, give them something they like.”

For example, if a network truly believes in a show but the statistics show that few viewers recognize it, the web may start airing more promo spots. Awareness is less important for a network’s 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. series, however, because the networks can rely on more established tent pole series to funnel in viewers.

Once you’ve built up awareness, the “intent to view” figures then reveal whether audiences are reacting favorably to those messages.

‘Intent’ must be there

“If you’ve got decent awareness for a series but lousy ‘intent to view’ numbers, then you’re getting the message out — but it’s the wrong message,” one exec said. ” ‘Intent to view’ is pretty important. If people know about the show but still don’t want to come, then it gets ugly.”

“Intent to view” numbers can also spike when a show strikes a chord among small, but loyal, fans of a genre or star. Take the case of UPN’s sci-fi action hour “Level Nine.” Only 4% of those polled (the least of any series) recognized the title. But of that 4%, a whopping 70% — the highest of any series — say they plan to watch the show.

“‘Intent to view’ is a pretty interesting statistic to know,” said NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier. “It’s certainly more quantifiable than program research.”

A number of the networks have started pooling their resources and sharing one awareness study, which exists as proprietary information. The networks will continue to survey awareness statistics as the new season approaches.

NBC, for example, should see a big boost once the promo-friendly Summer Olympics gets underway.

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