Longtime relationship faces new hardships

Television and the automotive industry grew up together. The TV season’s arbitrary ritual of a September kickoff — established more than a half-century ago, when each had its own Big Three — was designed for car companies rolling out new models. GM, Ford and Chrysler spent lavishly sponsoring big sporting events that the networks turned into national spectacles.

There’s additional symmetry in the U.S. auto industry and major broadcasters reaching a crucial crossroads at the same time — the former holding out its oily mitts for a government bailout while the latter careens along what was briefly called the information superhighway, realizing it’s harder than ever not to get lost amid all that traffic.

Their respective challenges can be traced to problems of their making — including failures of imagination — and forces beyond their control, like fluctuating oil prices and ad-zapping technology. In each case, the companies have been slow to innovate, tending instead to latch onto short-term fixes — “The Apprentice” as the new linchpin of NBC’s “Must-See TV” Thursday lineup here, feeding the public’s appetite for gas-guzzling sports-utility vehicles there. Get through one more quarter with positive results, the attitude seemed to be, and maybe this will all be the next guy’s headache.

Despite warnings about the need for change, both systems have been breaking down almost in slow motion. Back in ‘93, when Fox nabbed the rights to NFL and upgraded its affiliate lineup, TV’s Big Three became the Big Four. Competitors grew savvier and business models shifted. Even the notion of a traditional “TV season” has been mostly junked.

Like owners of an old clunker, everybody knew more than a mere tune-up was in order, but the prospect was so daunting they didn’t want to know what the damage was.

Both industries have also wrestled with their respective unions, which — given how fabulously the companies profited in the past — have had a hard time buying into doom-and-gloom warnings as anything but another cynical negotiating ploy.

The present economic downturn has widened and exposed fissures in these businesses, while highlighting how inextricably the two are linked. In fact, those bonds have been consciously heightened thanks to the popularity of product-integration deals, but thus far all that’s meant is lurching off a cliff together.

Tellingly, NBC — the most aggressive broadcaster on that front — is also the one registering audience levels that at times render it almost indistinguishable from a cable channel. The Peacock network built “Knight Rider” around a car with slightly more personality than its cast. In the already-canceled “My Own Worst Enemy,” the protagonist drove different GM models to help illustrate his dual personalities.

Interviewed on PBS’ “Charlie Rose,” NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman explained that bringing sponsors into the creative process required asking questions like, “What does this car represent to this character?”

Sounds swell, unless the show represents a motivation for viewers to check what’s on elsewhere. As a programming strategy, this risks putting the cart before the horse — or the Ford Mustang before the series.

The Big Three automakers remain among the U.S.’ top 10 advertisers (as does Toyota), so the networks feel their pain on a symbiotic level. According to Nielsen, all three U.S. companies have slashed 2008 ad spending through July — with Ford and Chrysler’s outlays each sinking by more than 20%. As Variety noted, automotive is network TV’s single biggest category, accounting for about 11% of sales.

The bottom line is that the networks need Detroit’s money, and Detroit needs the networks to be capable of providing them with a viable national marketing platform. Back in January, a Dodge executive expressed faith in the networks to weather the writers’ strike that could easily be flipped around to describe the U.S. auto industry.

Such companies “have been around a long time producing entertainment … that’s what they do,” Dodge advertising manager Mark Spencer was quoted as saying. “My expectation is that they’ll figure out and innovate and find other ways to attract audiences.”

There’s nothing wrong with optimism, but it’s hard to deny that the shrinking Big Threes have hit the skids, and it’s going to take a lot more than just placing TV stars behind the wheel of a Mustang to pull them out of it.

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