TV key art reaching creative highs

The CW tops THR's graded list with 'Vampire' poster

Traffic-accident mayhem, nude models and a doctor wrapped in snakes. Those are some of the striking key art ads for television shows that networks are rolling out this fall.

In recent years, TV posters have migrated from simplistic head shots to images resembling high art as networks employ increasingly theatrical techniques to grab viewer attention.

"Key art has become more artistic," says Joe Earley, Fox executive vp marketing and communications. "It's no longer a cast shot with a title. We have a balance of art and commerce."

The Hollywood Reporter again has assembled and graded the best and worst ads, an endeavor that would have been considered an act of parody only a decade ago.

The same network has the best ad two years in a row: The CW, which turned heads with its "Gossip Girl" campaign last fall, this time receives top marks for its ad for "The Vampire Diaries." The poster shows a trio of actors lying on the grass, their bodies arranged subtly in the form of a cross suggesting both vampire lore and a love triangle.

"That was a tough one because there was a real crowded marketplace of vampire-centric advertising and a heavy amount of awareness of 'Twilight' and 'True Blood,' " says CW senior vp print advertising Rick Frey, who also unveiled an ad campaign for new series "The Beautiful Life: TBL" that included its cast totally naked. "Ideas that felt more predictably vampiric were rejected."

Broadcasters vary on how they develop art campaigns. Some mainly use in-house staff (the CW and NBC, for instance, have large internal-marketing departments), others use a combination of internal and freelance agencies (strategies employed by ABC and Fox).

The recession has tightened belts, but a major broadcast network TV show's campaign typically ranges from $4 million-$5 million for off-net buys, with networks spending what's valued at about $20 million in ads on their own air. Premium cable networks HBO and Showtime usually spend about $7 million-$8 million off net since they have reduced impact with on-air ads.

The results can be striking. NBC's series of images for its new medical action series "Trauma" include scenes of traffic-accident chaos and were inspired by war photography. The ads are subtly shot from the perspective of a patient being attended by a paramedic (in fact, the photographer literally "played the victim" in each shot). The ads also are unusual in that they don't include a tagline.

"We wanted to capture the excitement of war photography, and we felt the photography was so strong, it sold the show in ways words could not," NBC marketing president Adam Stotsky says.

A third well-conceived ad is for Fox's

second-year mystery series "Fringe." At first blush, the image is straightforward, with actors gathered around a hole in the ground. But the poster contains 16 hidden objects for fans to find. It's a simple trick, but it has inspired online readers to devote time to studying the poster.

Fox also unveiled an interesting campaign for its medical stalwart "House" that includes star Hugh Laurie wrapped in large snakes to emulate the caduceus symbol.

A major turning point in the evolution of TV art was photographer Annie Leibovitz shooting photo spreads for HBO's "The Sopranos." The images proved art and TV marketing were not mutually exclusive and sparked fans to distribute the images online. Most marketers agree that HBO and such other niche networks as Showtime, FX and the CW have largely been responsible for pushing the creative boundaries of key art since they lack the megaphone platforms of major broadcasters and must find more innovative ways to get attention.

The Big Three networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- continue to be the most conservative in their images, with many employing the usual cast shot with a tagline. But that's partly because top broadcasters have about 20 new and returning series apiece launching each fall and tend to spend the bulk of their budgets on a few key shows.

Their challenge is amplified by the rising number of media outlets. It's not enough for an ad to look pretty in a magazine; key art often has to work on billboards, online and sometimes on the show's eventual DVD box cover.

Along with fans, the artistic community has taken notice, too.

"I can attract photographers I could never attract before," says Frey, who previously created theatrical art

in-house at Paramount. "They want to work with us because they know they can get a great product they can be proud of and a launch platform for their work."

How much impact does any ad campaign have on a show's ratings?

The CW earned record-setting numbers for the return of "Gossip Girl" last fall as well as for last week's launch of "Vampire Diaries," both of which have great ad campaigns. The network's "Melrose Place" ads, however, which generally were considered well done and received plenty

of distribution, didn't help the show's premiere.

All agree that despite artistic handwringing, the effect of key art can't be calculated.

"I think it's impossible to say," Earley says. "There are too many factors that contribute."