No loyalty from TV watchers who stay tuned
Preston Beckman, Fox’s scheduling guru, referred to big tune-in recorded by events like the Olympics and World Series as “borrowed audience” — the point being it’s difficult to convert such drive-by viewers into steady support for new series.Indeed, the networks have again engaged in a good deal of borrowing lately, and been repaid with a decided lack of interest. ABC’s telecast of the Academy Awards will cap off a string of big events hosted by the networks to kick off the calendar year. And if the others are any indication of what to expect, the Alphabet network might as well save all those promos for new and returning series — or better yet, convert them into paid spots, and let the programs sink or swim on their own. In terms of marketing platforms, Fox had the granddaddy of them all with Super Bowl XLV, using that showcase to trumpet newcomers “The Chicago Code” and “Traffic Light,” while featuring a postgame episode of “Glee.” Just a few weeks later, though, “Code” isn’t raising any alarms, “Light” is flickering at a generous flashing yellow, and “Glee” hasn’t enjoyed any appreciable bump from the additional one-time-only exposure. Fox is hardly alone. NBC tried leveraging playoff NFL football to put some wind behind “The Cape,” a superhero drama that has seen its episode order cut. And the most-watched Grammy telecast in years didn’t appear to boost CBS’ new sitcom “Mad Love,” while “Criminal Minds” spinoff “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” appears to have benefited more from piggybacking on its parent show than anything else. While it’s premature to write off all these programs as also-rans, it seems clear the inflated audiences for annual events hasn’t translated into consistent viewing for regular series — a familiar scenario that nevertheless has implications for both the networks and rights-holders to such sports and specials. Under Comcast, NBC has already made rumbling noises about whether the Olympics are still must-have programming, perhaps seeking to temper expectations in advance of bidding for the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Games from Sochi, Russia and Rio de Janeiro, respectively. In theory, maintaining the Olympics as Comcast seeks to rebuild NBC would look like a no-brainer. Except the Peacock network’s primetime fortunes have steadily eroded despite the advantage of televising the Olympics every other year since the century began, with shows like “Father of the Pride” and “My Own Worst Enemy” among the discards that couldn’t be saved by that five-ringed promotional circus. There are other considerations regarding the Olympics, beginning with Comcast’s ambitions to bolster its sports holdings, wedding NBC Sports with Versus and the Golf Channel to establish a more formidable rival to ESPN. Still, losing money on the Olympics in a specific effort to buoy NBC, at this point, seems to hold little appeal to the new bosses, with images of too many failed series still visible in the rear-view mirror. After the 2008 Olympics, then-NBC U CEO Jeff Zucker asserted that the Games’ gaudy ratings demonstrated network TV’s “pipes still work.” But the temporary boon to broadcasters is minimized unless those pipes keep flowing once the torch is dowsed. With many of these events, the audience is simply incompatible with the profile of typical primetime series viewers. By that measure, the Oscars — which tend to attract a crowd that’s more female, and perhaps a bit older, than most of the aforementioned franchises — ought to offer a more natural marketing vehicle, though even that hasn’t helped ABC launch many spring hits since “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered in March 2005. The optimal way to bow a series, in other words, remains scheduling it behind a compatible hit, and anything else is a poor substitute. As for maximizing high-rated events, the networks would seem to have three options: Develop programs specifically designed to tap into the audience drawn to these annual specials, which is difficult; narrowly confine promotion to a few shows; or rethink their marketing strategies, and stop bombarding casual viewers with the kind of spots demonstrated time and again to yield marginal results. Until then, programs introduced amid the high expectations fostered by pushes from the Super Bowl, Olympics or Oscars will continue living — or more accurately, dying — on borrowed time.