ESPN's New Goal: Getting Viewers Watch

And you thought the people at ESPN cared only about sports.

On Monday, executives at the sports-media empire will take a vested interest in helping a general-entertainment cable network launch the second season of one of its most successful scripted dramas. When ESPN fans use any of the company’s outlets today, they are likely to find promotions for History’s “Vikings,” in the form of mobile-page and web-page “takeovers” on ESPN digital properties, and, of course, in TV ads on ESPN and ESPN2 featuring veteran Kenny Mayne and Vikings character “The Seer” in three different spots touting the series. ESPN is also including print ads for the series in the March 3rd issue of ESPN The Magazine.

The goal, said Samantha Maltin, senior veep of marketing for History, is “really bringing in a new fan base and propelling ‘Vikings’ to become a pop-culture phenomenon.” The campaign was developed by ESPN’s in-house agency CreativeWorks, along with Horizon, an independent ad-buying firm that works with History.

As part of the pact, ESPN evem set up a large replica of a Viking ship at its annual Super Bowl party, which draws hundreds of advertisers and media buyers, allowing History to display signs touting the imminent arrival of the program, which debuts February 27.

But in serving as a bullhorn for the series, ESPN is in some ways advising its viewers to check out a show it does not air. In years past, TV networks shunned such promotion, believing it was not in their interest to call attention to popular programs that might draw eyeballs elsewhere. Indeed, Time Warner’s HBO has long faced a challenge in placing ads on broadcast-TV networks to draw viewers to such programs as “The Sopranos,” “Rome” or “Sex in the City,” and has often made use of local TV or local cable systems.

As ESPN’s embrace of “Vikings” shows, however, the explosion of programming from general-entertainment cable networks – and the ad dollars that accompany it – may offset any fear of defecting viewers. “These are hot brands, and they are getting attention,” said Ed Erhardt, president of global customer marketing and sales at ESPN.

Over the past several years, cable networks ranging from AMC to FX have invested heavily in signature original programming, with the theory being that distinctive shows in primetime win more notice than the usual movies or reruns of broadcast series. And with more general-entertainment cablers broadening their palette – TNT has dipped into reality programming, for instance, while USA is set to launch comedy series – there comes a need for more advertising to get the word out to couch-potato prospectives.

Cable and satellite networks spent approximately $211.6 million on TV advertising in 2012, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending, marking a 11.8% increase over the $189.2 million they spent in 2011.

Like many TV networks, ESPN maintains certain policies about accepting ad from other TV networks, said Erhardt, including restricting the ability to tell viewers what day, time and date the show being promoted may be on. But the company has done business in the past with HBO and National Geographic as well as A+E and History, both of which are part of A+E Networks, which is, like ESPN, a joint venture of Walt Disney and Hearst Corp.

TV networks’ resistance to such advertising appears to have waned over the years. History was able to run a commercial for “Swamp People” during NBC’s 2012 broadcast of Super Bowl XLVI. CBS accepted an ad from Time Warner’s Turner to promote TruTV in 2010.

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