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Tiny cablers super-size snarky stunts

Weblets make an art of counter programming, marketing

Like the guy flailing around on the corner dressed up like a hotdog, cable execs will do just about anything for you to sample their wares.

To counter program against heavily hyped network sweeps, fledgling webs like Fuse, Trio and SoapNet have taken to marketing and programming as though they too are putting on their best face for advertisers.

Recent attention-getters:

  • Music cabler Fuse put the media frenzy surrounding pop star Janet Jackson to use, taking out a full-page ad in the New York Post in mock support of MTV’s Super Bowl snafu and “wardrobe malfunction.” In addition, cabler arranged for popular “American Idol” reject William Hung to get a record deal.

  • To get Jack Tanner, subject of Robert Altman’s series “Tanner ’88” on the ballot, Sundance Channel distributed 1,500 free Metro cards to riders in New York and Washington D.C. The message: “There’s no such thing as a free ride, except from Jack Tanner.”

  • Timed to its “Uncovered TV” month in March, Trio commissioned Harris to conduct a survey which found that two-thirds of Americans wouldn’t mind seeing a televised execution while one-fifth said they would pay to see the on-screen death of Osama Bin Laden.

  • SoapNet reunited the cast of “Dallas” for its “Soap Talk” yakker centered around the premiere of the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode. Channel also used “J.R.” actor Larry Hagman as its frontman for the promotion.

Execs at the smaller networks, those in around 30 million homes, say they are increasingly reliant on the power of the press to boost awareness among consumers.

“We don’t take out full-page ads in a ton of dailies. We can’t afford to,” says Trio president Lauren Zalaznick. “But someone is going to take a picture or write something when we send guys spray-painted in gold to stand in front of Mann’s Chinese in honor of Awards Mania month on Trio.”

Much of the campaigning for the cablers is in fact targeted toward media and media buyers.

Says Fuse topper Mark Juris: “Things are so fragmented now, it’s really about super-serving an influential group of consumers. We’ve found that even more traditional advertisers like Wrigley come to us just to try out new things.”

Juris said Fuse, a music network that has positioned itself as the underdog in its David-vs.-Goliath relationship with MTV, implements many tongue-in-cheek efforts that industryites will tune into.

Rather than Carson Daly or Britney Spears, the cabler recruited perennial spokeswoman Sally Struthers, who parodied herself in an ad campaign urging onlookers to “save the music video.”

“We tell ad buyers you won’t get the mass reach of MTV, but you’ll get the most important kids, the kids who get it, the kids who set the trends,” Juris says. “We’re not Nike, we’re Vans. We’re that cool club on 12th Street that doesn’t even have a sign.”

The tactics have gone over well with ad buyers increasingly interested in targeting specific niche audiences.

Natalie Conway, VP and media director at Starcom MediaVest Group, said an emerging net with a distinct brand can often meet an advertiser’s brand needs without having the Nielsens that Madison Avenue clings to.

“Even a network like Great American Country, which is so small and not growing, always comes in with a great idea that is specific to one of the clients and makes it work,” she said.

And according to Kagan World estimates, the strategy will pay off.

Despite not reaching enough subs to be officially monitored by Nielsen, Trio stands to rake in $11.9 million in ad revenues this year and $18 million in 2005. Meanwhile, Fuse will up its $25.8 million in ad sales this year to $41.7 next; and SoapNet leaps from $51.9 million in 2004 to $68.5 in 2005.

But the stunts don’t stop with grassroots and guerrilla-style marketing. Weblets have gotten blips on the mass media radar with some creative scheduling and event programming.

Content, after all, is all-important to niche.

Trio, a pop culture network that takes critical and irreverent aim at the media, is available in just 20 million homes. Less strategy than positioning, its culturally savvy programming is adored by TV crix. One glance at its press clippings and it’s easy to mistake it for a top-rated channel.

“There is something to be said for success modeled on buzz,” Zalaznick says, noting that the nature of the programming put the net in a great relationship with writers. Last week, Trio reps hosted a screening of “Brilliant But Canceled” series at Chicago-based Starcom.

“Ad buyers are high media consumers. They’re more likely to be a fan of Trio because we’re definitely a filter that looks at all facets of the business from TV to film, and from music to the media. So within those media-buying companies, we’re finding that we’ve got a lot of support,” marketing senior VP Jason Klarman says.

SoapNet, one of the fastest growing nets, sent out “Who Shot J.R.?” dartboards to cable affiliates and has armed its reps with soap-operatic business cards.

“We’ve always felt that we’ve needed to be more innovative,” SoapNet topper Deborah Blackwell says, adding that the bulk of marketing pushes are directed at cable affiliates, “a key constituency for an emerging network like us.”

Still, bottom-line-driven advertisers are a tough bunch to crack without Nielsen backing.

Says Conway: “I have a client who calls it charity, and it’s because they are paying money without getting any sort of validation from Nielsen. The smaller networks come in more often than their broadcast and cable brothers and sisters because they have to. Their jobs are much tougher.”