Alphabet’s selective strategy is new model

Nets feel pressure to devise new marketing plans

As Carnac the Magnificent, Johnny Carson once described a “Catch-22” as “what the Dodgers would do if you hit them 100 fly balls.” Yet, a more traditional reading of the term refers to the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, which approximates the current lot of TV marketing.

Marketers are asked to entice viewers to sample new programs. But how do you get the message out to a highly fragmented aud with a surplus of viewing options and one finger on the remote?

If that was beginning to look like a semihopeless proposition, the reassuring news is that last year, the then lowest rated of the major networks, ABC, proved it was still possible to launch breakthrough hits.

Both “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” instantly became appointment programs, at a time when some pundits wondered aloud if the Disney-owned network had slipped below the level of critical audience mass necessary to pull off such a feat.

Networks still maintain that their own air remains the best means to get in touch with consumers. The major broadcasters are each watched by in excess of 100 million distinct consumers during an average week. For the just-completed TV season, more than 180 million U.S. residents watched at least one of them in a week’s time — a level of reach that compares favorably with Internet portals Yahoo and AOL, which amass over 100 million unique visitors in a month.

Nevertheless, the pressure is on to devise new marketing strategies — from leveraging sister cable nets and the Internet to squeezing ads into movie theaters, electronic devices, outdoor venues and viral campaigns.

In ABC’s test case, that meant investing heavily behind a few series, channeling resources toward programs perceived as having the best opportunity to blossom into hits — it seemed as if you couldn’t drive three blocks last summer without passing a “Housewives” billboard.

Meanwhile, the networks continue to experiment with ways to exploit their valuable on-air time, with no one really knowing at what point pushing those boundaries risks alienating more-discerning viewers.

Among these relatively new tactics are “swipes,” which might include having the entire cast of Fox’s “That ’70s Show” march across the bottom of the screen during “House.”

The efficacy of this approach remains questionable, given all the pop-ups NBC tried in the midst of high-rated shows on behalf of “Joey” (which survived the season, if barely) and “Father of the Pride” (which didn’t).

If the major nets face growing concerns about possessing enough on-air circulation, cable services operate from a smaller base — although niche channels can rely to an extent on narrowly defined brands, such as Food, Home & Garden and Outdoor Life, to establish themselves as viewing destinations.

Increasingly, however, that kind of identity isn’t enough, prompting nets such as A&E, TBS and TLC to alter their profiles, wooing a new (and usually younger) audience through heavily promoted programs.

In those instances, marketers must sell a show like “Dog the Bounty Hunter” or “The Real Gilligan’s Island” to reel in those who wouldn’t otherwise be predisposed to visit those nets.

The bottom line is that marketing techniques must become more innovative. This will likely include embracing technologies that represent ostensible enemies to ad-supported nets, such as the Internet and digital video recorders like TiVo, which are eager to capitalize on such tie-ins.

Ultimately, the smart money says that networks will be forced to double down on their bets, funneling dollars toward those programs with the best chance of breaking through.

That might call for sacrificing some of their children — or at least, loving a chosen few more than others. But if recent history is any guide, desperate times call for “Desperate” measures.

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