Networks fighting new media for eyeballs

New media captures more and more audience attention, but network executives will do anything to make sure those eyeballs ultimately turn back to the TV screen.

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Over the course of a few weeks, the mating dance of network executives, journalists and Madison Avenue types takes place in New York. There are uncountable opportunities for free nosh, culminating in one common goal: build buzz on and presell ads for the new fall TV season.

But the tried-and-true upfront system, just like the concept of a fall TV schedule, has been under fire for some years now. Scheduling TV's primetime is more than just filling in a grid of hours between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.; networks employ a combination of art and science, interlaced with a healthy dose of competitive spirit, to decide what goes where. And while scheduling remains a key part of a network's playbook, today's TV landscape makes it clear that those three-hour blocks each night aren't the be-all and end-all of the business anymore. With digital video recorders in an estimated 20% of Nielsen Media Research TV households (though the data varies on how, and how often, they are used), viewers are creating their own lineups and schedules.

And that's not all: Internet streaming has come into its own in 2007, with top shows sometimes attracting millions of streams. On top of that are Apple's iTunes and the small but growing prospect of mobile viewing. Yet whether any of this is about to topple a decades-old system remains to be seen; it's a matter, to some extent, of opinion.

"All the rules we go by are being totally rewritten," says Alan Wurtzel, NBC's president of research. "If people don't think of a linear schedule anymore, how do we launch new shows?"

While many see new media positioned to gain more ground against broadcast TV in the future, most of the digital platforms generate an insignificant amount of revenue when compared to the billions of dollars that primetime TV brings in for the networks, and that isn't likely to change much in the next few years.

"To have those things driving scheduling decisions would be tantamount to suicide for the immediate future," says Preston Beckman, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s executive vp scheduling. "How fall schedules are put together isn't that different from how they've always been put together. Anyone who makes a scheduling decision based on a mobile phone or streaming an Internet episode should be fired at this juncture."

Beckman believes that it's all the rage to talk about new media, but the business still comes down to the ability to create, schedule, market and execute TV programs that people want to watch live and will be talking about at the water cooler the next morning.

"These (new media platforms) are all sexy notions, but I don't think anybody's proven that they really amount to much in terms of impact on the schedule," he says.

ABC's research into iTunes and DVD and DVR viewing, as well as abc.com, found that the new platforms are bringing people to shows that they wouldn't normally sit down to watch. There's little if any decrease in TV viewership because of it.

"Those are extra viewers. They're primarily additive," says Jeff Bader, ABC's executive vp entertainment programming.

Madison Avenue, which has been concerned about the impact of DVR for years, is now coming around to the same realization. "It was a concern for us in the advertising community, at first, that all of these other entities would take away from television viewing," says Scott Haugenes, senior vp and group director of broadcast at New York-based ad buyer Initiative. "It hasn't happened yet. That doesn't mean it won't happen in the future, but for now, for our marketers, TV is where they get eyeballs."

Schedulers are still taking a longer look at the new-media platforms. ABC has gone so far as to appoint Wendell Foster as vp multiplatform scheduling. "There are a lot of rights involved. There are a lot of players," Bader says. "Wendell's job is to make sure that everything is coordinated. The ultimate goal is that everything points back to ABC. We need people to watch on ABC."

That's why ABC created a new multiplatform campaign that began this summer called "ABC Start Here." "It's OK for the audience to start their viewing experience at multiple audience touchpoints -- abc.com, iTunes, etc.," says ABC's executive vp marketing, Mike Benson. "The whole idea (of the campaign) is to send them to new and original telecasts on the ABC broadcast network."

Probably the biggest impact new media platforms have these days is in building buzz. Haugenes remembers how "Heroes" didn't attract that much attention among media buyers at NBC's May 2006 upfront presentation. But the show gained momentum online over the summer and went on to become one of last season's biggest hits.

New media platforms have driven some scheduling decisions. Perhaps the highest-profile is "Jericho," the CBS nuclear-war drama that started strong in the early going last season but fizzled when it returned from a lengthy hiatus. "Jericho" wasn't on the CBS schedule board when it was unveiled in May, so devoted fans took action and sent peanuts. But what got the network thinking, according to Kelly Kahl, senior executive vp programming operations, was the number of letters it received from people who said that they watched the show online and via DVR -- all viewing measures that weren't captured in the initial viewership data. "For the first time I can remember, we looked a little beyond the Nielsen numbers," Kahl says.

A couple of weeks after the upfronts, "Jericho" was picked up with a seven-episode midseason order.

ABC witnessed a similar phenomenon with "National Bingo Night," which by all Nielsen measures crashed when it premiered on Friday night in May. ABC's Bader says that the game show was renewed despite poor ratings because network executives found that the show's online component -- playing bingo -- was out of proportion to the number of people who were watching on linear TV. But those are so far the only exceptions to the rule, which is that a program's linear TV ratings determine its fate.

"We do a better job monetizing those viewers, but the lion's share still comes from broadcast," Kahl says. "People have more options, but the currency we still live and die with are Nielsen numbers."

That's the whole reason for the "ABC Start Here" campaign, ABC's Bader says. "All of the money (from ancillary platforms) doesn't pay for one episode of 'Lost,'" he says. "Maybe in the future, but not yet."


MORE FALL TV SEASON COVERAGE

FUTURE TENSE: Networks battle new media for viewer eyeballs
FEED THE WEB: Networks pursue total online immersion
REMOTE CONTROL: Scorecard on networks' fall strategies
GRID LOCK: Media buying experts survey the fall season
DIGITAL REALM: Film giving way to digital ... slowly
CREDIT CHECK: Studio and producer credits for the fall season
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