Marketing sections face task of promoting new shows

With last week’s tragedies still fresh in everyone’s minds, launching a fall season has never been more difficult — but the networks are going to try anyway.

Web execs are bracing for a slower-than-usual rollout when the fall season officially starts Monday, given that any momentum the nets would have seen going into premiere week has come to a screeching halt.

After all, deciding what’s hot and what’s not among new TV skeins isn’t exactly at the top of most primetime viewers’ minds. With just days to launch, the nets’ marketing gurus now face the Herculean task of getting the word out about the new fall season.

“Of course it’s a total mess,” one net topper said. “Everyone’s got a sob story. We’ve certainly got ours. There are no manuals on how to do this.”

Added another network exec: “As if there’s not enough confusion with six networks trying to launch 30 shows, now take all the premiere dates and throw them out the window. The media people craft (promotional messages) to hit at precise times. This disrupts that timing. And we haven’t seen the end of the disruptions.”

Execs at the six broadcast webs were forced to junk their launch strategies and, in many cases, start from scratch after the nets made a last-minute decision to delay premiere week.

“All the networks had developed a lot of momentum since June, and that momentum stopped on Sept. 11,” said George Schweitzer, CBS exec VP of marketing and communications. “Our goal is to get our messages out again.”

A week of wall-to-wall uninterrupted news coverage also means the webs were not able to promote their fall wares.

“I don’t think this country is in a mind frame where it has returned to a sense of normalcy yet,” WB Entertainment prexy Jordan Levin said. “It’s going to be very difficult to get the attention that you might have been able to get a week ago.”

Public interest there?

Adding to that simple day-and-date confusion are more complex dilemmas, such as whether the American public has lost interest in tuning into a new fall roster of shows.”The greatest catastrophe for most generations living on this planet right now happened in one day,” said John Miller, co-prexy of the NBC Agency. “You have to think there was some momentum lost.”

Alan Cohen, ABC Entertainment’s exec VP of marketing, advertising and promotion, said his web had been pulling “solid awareness scores — but no one knows if any of that is on people’s minds anymore.”

“It’s only been a week, but it seems so long ago,” Cohen said. “Everything in the world now seems small and unimportant. I think it’s going to be an odd launch.”

Cohen said the Alphabet net has had to rebuild its entire media plan, including new on-air promos and radio spots, to get the word out. Like its competitors, ABC has also had to change the tone in a number of its promos.

“It’s not just a matter of removing certain things that might be thought of as offensive now, but also moving lines,” he said. “A spot for ‘The Practice’ said the show was ‘more gripping than the headlines.’ But it’s not anymore.”

Violence cut

Other nets have had to make similar changes. NBC’s “UC: Undercover,” for example, doesn’t deal with the CIA. Nonetheless, it’s a big, loud show with its fare share of explosions and death-defying feats.

“We’ve cut back the violence in the promos,” Miller said.

In the next few weeks, NBC will also face the delicate task of hyping the third season premiere of “Third Watch,” which was pushed back to Oct. 15. The skein revolves around Gotham firefighters and police officers.

“We have to figure out how to embrace the fact that this show features the people who were heroes in last week’s events while not exploiting the events that are still fresh in (the minds of viewers),” Miller said.

The Eye’s Schweitzer said the coming weeks will likely be much like the scenario the nets faced 10 years ago during the Gulf War — only worse.

“You never knew what you’d have on from one day to the next,” he said.

Still, that conflict lasted about two months and began in January, when viewing patterns for the season had largely been established. The six nets now face months of heavy news coverage coming at a time when practically none of their new fall offerings has bowed.

Some webs have more promo platforms than others.

CBS and Fox, for example, have NFL football games this weekend; ABC has the Miss America Pageant on Saturday as well as “Monday Night Football” to hype its Tuesday and Wednesday laffers. CBS, UPN, Fox and the WB also have a wide array of cable outlets that can air promo spots.

Schweitzer said CBS was now making even heavier use of its Viacom cable and radio siblings.

NBC is less fortunate, having no major sports franchises playing right now and only two news-oriented cable networks that skew older and male.

Of course, the nets are also having to battle a sea of misinformation about when shows will bow. TV Guide and the Sunday newspaper TV supplements had already been printed when the nets opted to push the season back a week.

Not all was lost. TV Guide acted quickly after last week’s attack and shifted around some ads and listings.

Net execs now hope that audiences are ready for a new fall season.

“After being immersed in this kind of coverage for a long period of time, the second part of the therapy kicks in: You want to be entertained,” Miller said.

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