TV promos flying blind

Marketers struggle to pitch shows sight unseen

It’s tough to promote products you’ve never seen.

But that’s exactly what some network marketing chiefs have been forced to do this fall. With finished episodes of new series arriving late — and with more retooling of rookies than any other year in memory — several nets head into fall blindly promoting their wares.

This inconvenience, largely a result of the writers strike, comes just as the broadcasters face their toughest fall launch yet. The nets ended last year nursing big Nielsen declines, and continue to face increased competition from heavily hyped cable fare.

Add in low summer ratings — which translates to fewer on-air promotional opportunities — and this could be a most trying season for the broadcasters.

“The biggest challenge for us is that we have two new shows for this fall and we have not seen episodes yet,” says ABC Entertainment exec VP of marketing Michael Benson, whose network has frosh entries “Life on Mars” and “Opportunity Knocks” on deck. “We’re having to figure out new ways to communicate what our shows are.”

In a typical year, the networks set their skeds right before the May upfront presentations with finished pilots in hand. Their marketing departments then have an entire summer to noodle strategy, and at least one finished episode to provide to critics and use in on-air promos.

“Normally, you have a show, and you’re able to test it and find out what the main selling points are,” says John Miller, NBC Universal TV Group chief marketing officer.

With pilot footage unavailable to them this year, some marketing pros are figuring out new ways to communicate their messages on the fly.

For the Alphabet’s adaptation of BBC hit “Life on Mars,” Benson and fellow exec VP of marketing Maria Provencio are relying on scripts, dailies and other footage to cobble together a promo campaign. It also didn’t help that ABC tossed out the original pilot from spring and recast nearly all the supporting characters.

“We’re shooting spots that are more conceptual,” Benson says. His challenge: Describe a series about a cop, played by Jason O’Mara, who travels back in time to 1973 to find a serial killer. (Let alone trying to explain the nonsensical title.)

“We’re mixing in old footage from news sources and the ABC archives to kind of set the tone,” he says. “We’re also putting in bits from the original (BBC) program.”

At Fox, the pilot for new skein “Fringe” was delivered to the net mid-summer; but Fox still needed to orchestrate special shoots on the set of the J.J. Abrams-produced series to gather extra string for promos.

” ‘Fringe’ was a show we started marketing the day of our upfront,” says Fox marketing honcho Joe Earley. “From the middle of May to the middle of September is a long time to be using just pilot footage. Viewers get tired of seeing the same scenes over and over again.”

In forming a kind of visual tapestry in lieu of merely slicing and dicing a pilot, marketers have to be careful to convey the right message.

“One thing you don’t want to do is sacrifice telling the audience what the show is about,” Provencio notes. “You don’t want to be too outrageous.”

Working in marketers’ favor is the fact that the nets will bow fewer new shows this fall — only 18.

However, network marketers have also faced a fresh challenge this season: relaunching several practically new series that had their seasons truncated last year by the strike. Because many of those shows have been off the air for the better part of nine months, awareness among the viewing public is virtually nil — and marketers find themselves back at square one.

The Peacock is promoting sophomore series “Chuck,” “Life” and “Lipstick Jungle” “almost as if they were new shows,” says Miller, who adds that the Peacock devoted about 65% of its marketing promos during the Olympics to returning shows. In all, nine skeins from NBC’s fall lineup are being made available for viewing online prior to their TV premiere dates this year “to make sure people sample them.”

Because they have to promote returning skeins almost as vigorously as new ones, marketers must be judicious with their finite inventory of on-air promo time.

“Managing our inventory is probably one of the most important things we’re doing right now,” Benson adds. “It requires a lot of focus and prioritizing in terms of what’s most important. We want to make sure we’re putting our resources in the right place.”

For ABC, this means an especially big push behind its Wednesday lineup, a trio of shows that bowed to promising numbers last fall but have been out of circulation for nine months. This lineup, in fact, is receiving more promotional dollars than either of the net’s two newcomers.

Of course, at NBC, the answer these days is still found in the Olympics, which Miller says provided the Peacock with an opportunity to deliver a higher-than-usual assortment of promos — spread across multiple platforms — touting its fall sked.”Having the Olympics and 210 millionpeople watching has solved a lot of our problems,” he says. “We were able to hit the audience with so many messages.”While the Olympics provided NBC with ample opportunity to tout new series like “Crusoe” and “Kath & Kim,” and remind the viewing public about returning series like “ER” and “30 Rock,” they created yet another marketing challenge for competing networks — a veritable two-week black hole, during which time they had a limited viewership to promote their own fall lineups.

CBS marketers had pilots for its new series available to them this summer, while returning sophomores such as “The Big Bang Theory” aired new episodes as recently as May. However, Eye marketing topper George Schweitzer says his network needed to “backload” the bulk of its promos to avoid the Games.

“We loaded up our media arsenal for the first three weeks of September and we’re on target,” he says. “NBC got the lion’s share of the viewing, and that’s terrific for them, but the Olympics are over.”