Will broadcasters start promoting on rival nets?

Increasing DVR penetration is stirring up debate

As consumers continue to be exposed to an increasing array of media choices, the major broadcast networks still devote 85%-90% of their new program promotional efforts to spots that appear on their own air. The rest is spread across the traditional and new-media universe including print, radio, online, out-of-home and social networks.

But now, with DVR penetration approaching 40%, according to Nielsen -- and with more than 50% of ads skipped in DVR playback mode -- some network executives acknowledge that they're on-air promo efforts aren't as effective as they once were.

So is it finally time for the broadcast networks to start promoting their offerings on one another's air? It's a thorny competitive issue that has stirred debate recently as the networks gear up to promote their fall 2010-11 program lineups.

Five years ago, the idea of the broadcast networks promoting their shows on rivals' air would have been unthinkable. But now, at least one veteran TV audience analyst, Steve Sternberg, says the networks need to do it to remain competitively viable.

"If ABC could, for example, promote a new show on CBS, NBC and Fox at the same time, it would be like advertising on the Winter Olympics every night," he said. "To simply ignore such a large group of potential viewers is ridiculous. Network ratings could easily go up by 10%-20% if they consistently promoted themselves on the other networks."

But even while some network executives agree it might make sense in terms of reaching a broader audience, the technique isn't likely to be embraced anytime soon, they said.

"From a marketing standpoint, I would love to do that," said Rick Haskins, executive vp marketing at the CW. "But from a competitive standpoint, it raises a lot of issues. I'm not sure I'd love seeing a commercial for (CBS') "Hawaii Five-0" on CW. I think we're a ways off from that."

CBS marketing president George Schweitzer agreed. "I don't see us selling time to ABC, NBC or Fox and vice versa," he said.

Some other analysts take issue with Sternberg's position. Don Seaman, vp-director of communications analysis at MPG, believes viewers would be confused after decades of conditioning to look for a new show solely on the network where they saw it promoted.

In the short term, networks are taking steps to enhance the power of on-air promos in the DVR era. For one, they've appropriated the last position in commercial pods for themselves. The position is less susceptible to skipping.

Haskins said the CW takes advantage of that by producing shorter on-air promos that direct viewers to the Web for more in-depth information. Indeed, with its younger audience, Haskins said the network uses up to 30% of its promo efforts online for some programs. "We're making our on-air work harder to drive viewers online," he said.

And most of the networks have started advertising on DVR platforms like TiVo. Tara Maitra, TiVo's vp-GM of content services, said the company offers several kinds of program "tags." One lets viewers know when they're fast-forwarding through a promo with a static visual, and others redirect them to places where they can view longer clips or set up recording of programs. Ads also can be placed on TiVo's home page.

Of course, it was TiVo that caused the ad-skipping headaches for the networks in the first place.

"Now we have solutions," said Maitra, adding that since introducing its ad capability about 18 months ago, all but one of the broadcast networks have signed up for packages.
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