Tune in Whenever You Want: How TV Marketing Has Changed in the On-Demand Era

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series examining the transformation of television as the industry prepares to celebrate the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 19.

Each fall, as part of a long-held ritual, TV networks release dozens of new programs — and dozens of gimmicks, promotions, and marketing schemes to call attention to them.

In years past, CBS tattooed supermarket eggshells with show logos and dispensed cups of yogurt with flavors like “Sheldon’s Bazinga Blueberry” to hawk “The Big Bang Theory.” Fox dispatched pounds and pounds of Halloween candy to media reportes to tout “The Simpsons’ ” annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween special. The CW lined up a “Dynasty” bus to take people to the Hamptons with tank tops and tumblers devoted to the soapy reboot. And ABC offered up sessions of “goat yoga” to drum up publicity for a comic drama called “Kevin (Probably) Saves The World.”

As more TV viewers become digital streamers, however, there are questions about whether these outlandish stunts still have a place in the TV firmament.

Darren Schillace has been launching TV series for years and had a hand in a banner year at ABC when his former employer debuted “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” during the 2004-05 season. The president of marketing for Fox Broadcasting still sees reason to employ some of the aforementioned strategies and even buy up the Hollywood billboards that give producers and TV executives reassurance that networks are indeed promoting their programs. But increasingly, Schillace says, those techniques are “just not as critical as to what consumers are responding to these days.”

Television in Transition

The rise of streaming hubs like Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Peacock, Hulu and Netflix has changed the way viewers find out about potential TV favorites. At a moment in the not-too-distant past, TV networks needed to aim promotional firepower in the hopes of getting couch potatoes to tune in to a new drama or reality show that aired Tuesday at 9 p.m. or Wednesday at 8 p.m. But more people are latching on to a series in hopes of bingeing through them at moments of their own choosing, and the dynamic is reworking how TV strategists try to sell the programs to potential audiences.

“In the past, you wanted them to tune in at a specific time and place,” says Paul Hardart, director of the media, entertainment and technology program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Now, you want them to subscribe.” Different goals, he says, require different marketing dynamics. To drive success in streaming, media companies “want to acquire you like a credit card company. What’s it going to take to get you to sign up? And once you sign up, they will want to retain you.”

In previous decades era, the networks would start touting their new programs as early as the May before they launched, to coincide with their announcement at one of the industry’s “upfront” presentations. The network might announce it on a Tuesday afternoon, and  — voila! —  there would be promos on air in primetime that night.

But in an era of on-demand everything, some executives think announcing something that can’t be watched immediately may be foolhardy. “People discover things and make decisions much more quickly than they used to,” says Mike Benson, chief marketing officer of CBS. “The cadence of our campaigns seems to be changing. Things become very hot very fast, and you may not need as much time to market the product as you used to.” In 2018, Netflix raised eyebrows by using an ad in Super Bowl LII to tell viewers that it had just released the J.J. Abrams movie “The Cloverfield Paradox” – which was available to stream immediately.

“Over and over I’m seeing people say, ‘Don’t tell me something is coming when it’s not available immediately, because people want it,” says Benson, who has also worked for Amazon and Disney.

Marketing executives have also had to think about their series in different ways. In the past, getting people to tune in to the debut of the series was paramount. After all, networks might yank a show off the air if it didn’t perform up to expectations in its early weeks on air. Now executives like Rick Haskins say they are increasingly mindful of a potential “halo effect” of people discovering the series well after its first broadcast run, when it moves to streaming. Those fans may bounce over to the network that houses the show’s initial appearance if it has new episodes at the ready.

In October, CW will launch the next season of “All American,” the series inspired by the life of former football player Spencer Paysinger. The show has a run on Netflix, and Haskins, the CW’s president of streaming and its chief branding officer, believes that has boosted the ratings of the linear run.

The executive says he has stopped thinking about linear views and digital consumption as different categories. “We really view it all as one ecosystem, where we go to drive from social to digital, and from digital to linear and back again.”

Chances are, however, that the networks will still rely on some of their tried-and-true methods, blending them with the audience-targeting tools found in digital and social media. There are still shows that thrive on day-and-date viewing, including big hits like “Masked Singer,” says Schillace. And those programs continue to generate tens of millions of dollars in ad support. That means the networks still need to drive awareness as much as they need to harness anticipation from very specific niches of audience.

One area that gets increased scrutiny is sampling, or getting part of a show or a whole episode in front of likely fans before it premieres. “We are looking to put our shows in front of who might be the most passionate fans,” says Schillace. “Let them help us do the marketing, make them evangelists.”

Someone will probably find a clever gizmo or guerilla-marketing campaign between now and the end of the fall season’s launch period. Simply put, “I think those campaigns can help drive word of mouth,” says Benson. “There’s still a lot of stuff out there.”