TV series marketing forced to improvise

Absence of finalized pilots forces execs to adapt

We haven’t seen it either, but trust us, it’s great.”

It’s a ham-fisted message that no network marketing chief worth his Lexus hybrid would ever approve. But with finished episodes of new series arriving way later than they normally would amid the aftermath of the writers strike, it’s somewhat apropos.

“The biggest challenge for us is that we have two new shows for this fall and we have not seen episodes yet,” says ABC Entertainment exec VP of marketing Michael Benson. “We’re having to figure out new ways to communicate what our shows are.”

In a typical year, the networks set their skeds right before spring’s upfront presentations with finished pilots in hand. Their marketing departments then have virtually an entire summer to noodle strategy, and they’ll have at least one finished episode on hand to work with in terms of creating on-air promos.

“Normally, you have a show, and you’re able to test it and find out what the main selling points are,” says John Miller, NBC Universal TV Group chief marketing officer.

Rapid response

With pilot footage unavailable to them this year, marketing pros are figuring out new ways to communicate messages on the fly.

For “Life on Mars,” an adaptation of a popular BBC series premiering on ABC Oct. 9, Benson and fellow exec VP of marketing Maria Provencio are relying on scripts, dailies and other footage sources to form a campaign.

“We’re shooting spots that are more conceptual,” Benson says. “We’re mixing in old footage from news sources and the ABC archives to kind of set the tone. We’re also putting in bits from the original (BBC) program.”

In forming a kind of visual tapestry in lieu of merely slicing and dicing a pilot, marketers have to be careful to convey the right message.

“You don’t want to … sacrifice telling the audience what the show is about,” Provencio notes. “You don’t want to be too outrageous.”

Working in marketers’ favor is that in the aftermath of the strike, only 17 new series will hit broadcast primetime this fall. However, this doesn’t take into account the returning skeins launched last year whose seasons were truncated by the strike. According to Miller, NBC is promoting “Chuck,” “Life” and “Lipstick Jungle” “almost as if they were new shows.”

Miller concedes this has added to the complexity of NBC’s promotional strategy. But as with all things Peacock-related lately, the solution is tied to the Olympics, which provided NBC an focused opportunity to deliver a higher-than-usual assortment of promos.

“Having the Olympics and 210 million people watching has solved a lot of our problems,” says Miller.

Others have had to be judicious in spreading their promo power across their lineup.

“Managing our inventory is probably one of the most important things we’re doing right now,” Benson explains. “It requires a lot of focus and prioritizing in terms of what’s most important.”

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