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Networks glom on to Hollywood marketing methods

Since early this summer, Geena Davis has been everywhere. Ads featuring the actress played in theaters before movies, during prime time, and on billboards throughout much of the country. There was a Geena Davis joint promotion with cell-phone maker Nokia Corp. (NOK) and another with the Disney Channel (DIS). The ads even stared up from the floors of grocery store aisles in New York and Los Angeles.

It's the kind of star treatment that Davis, 43, has gotten throughout much of her 18-year film career. But this time it was for Geena Davis, television star. And ABC's The Geena Davis Show is hardly the only TV show these days getting the kind of all-out promotional blitz usually reserved for a big-budget movie. Indeed, with cable television continuing to eat away at network TV's prime-time audience, getting big numbers for the opening episode of a TV show has taken on all the expense and urgency of doing the same for a summer blockbuster movie. "We're all starting to think a lot more like Hollywood," says John Miller, president of NBC Agency, the network's in-house ad shop. "In my 16 years in this business, I've never seen anything quite like it."

In the new TV season that began in early October, TV networks borrowed liberally from tried-and-true film campaigns. NBC (GE) launched a joint promotion with candy company M&M/Mars, using cartoon M&M characters to promote new time slots for sitcoms Frasier on Tuesday nights and Will & Grace on Thursdays. The release of a new Bette Midler CD was timed for the day before her new CBS sitcom, Bette, premiered, part of a blitz that also included a heavier-than-usual billboard campaign specials on CBS sister channels VH-1 and MTV. All are owned by Viacom Inc. (VIA)

It's far too early to say whether any of the shows will be hits. But getting an early sampling is considered crucial, and the campaigns seemed to have helped several shows to surprisingly strong first-week ratings. The Geena Davis Show had the largest opening of any new show, while Bette gave CBS its strongest Wednesday night in years. Big ad campaigns also benefited Fox's science-fiction show Dark Angel, which was widely promoted in movie theaters as well as on the Sci-Fi cable channel and the Fox Sports channel. The James Cameron-produced show also benefited from a classic Hollywood maneuver: Like studios that release comedies during weekends dominated by action films, Fox premiered Dark Angel opposite the first Presidential debate and a baseball playoff game in hopes of skimming off a share of the large TV audience that night.

Strong openings for shows such as Dark Angel are crucial for companies like Fox, which spent an estimated $6 million on the show's pilot and is spending more than $3 million a week on production. That puts pressure on network execs, who years ago could wait for an audience to develop. Back then, however, networks rarely owned the shows, with studios picking up most of the tab. "The corporate pressure from up high to open a show has never been greater," says Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television (FOX), which oversees both the TV studio and the network. "It's harder for any of us around here to be patient." Spending to promote key network shows rose this year to between $5 million to $10 million per show, mostly on those that kick off the network lineups at 8 p.m. While the budget might seem paltry vs. the $21.4 million movie studios spent on average last year to promote a film, it doesn't take into account the slew of free ads the networks run to highlight their own shows. NBC executives say they promoted West Wing and other shows as often as five times an hour during their recent Olympics coverage, where ads cost more than $200,000 a piece.

HARD-PRESSED. It's all about cutting through today's clutter and getting a new TV show to stand out, say network executives, who add they used to be able to count on as much as 70% of the audience sampling new shows by November. That was before cable TV's share of the prime-time audience grew past 40% and the number of broadcast networks jumped to seven from three. Now, says one industry researcher, networks are hard-pressed to get their shows watched by 15% of those viewers. Indeed, cable heavily promotes its own original programming, such as TNT's new Bull and HBO's returning The Sopranos. For now, networks are holding their own. In Nielsen's most recent numbers, their share of the prime-time audience even increased to 66%, two percentage points above last year's opening two weeks.

To offset cable's gains, network execs are launching campaigns earlier than ever, often starting in May for shows that first air in October. The marketing began for Gideon's Crossing, a drama set in an inner city hospital, before the pilot was finished, says Alan Cohen, ABC's executive vice-president for marketing. And like their movie studio peers, network execs now closely watch consumer awareness. "They conduct focus groups on everything from the lead character to their latest commercial," says Aaron Cohen, executive vice-president of media buying agency Horizon Media Inc.

Networks also control their own airtime, still the most effective way to get the word out about any new product. And this summer, networks had the rare luxury of promoting new programs during several hit shows that lured large audiences. NBC's promotions during the Olympics helped make the first week of its returning drama West Wing the most-watched show of the new season, with 25 million viewers. CBS opened seven shows strongly, winning increased viewership for its returning Everyone Loves Raymond, in part because of the 19 million new viewers it says tuned in to its mega-hit Survivor as well as Big Brother. Many of those were younger viewers, who apparently also liked what they saw in ads for the action series The Fugitive. Those ads helped to make it one of the season's early hits.

Being units of larger media companies, the networks also cross-promoted with their sister divisions. ABC used the Disney theme parks and even mailed The Geena Davis Show promotions to Disney Channel cable customers. CBS used other Viacom units to promote its shows, including giving away 1 million promotional tapes of its coming lineup to customers who rented videos from its Blockbuster (BBI) video business. Even though its merger with America Online Inc. (AOL) hasn't been approved by regulators, Time Warner Inc.'s (TWX) WB network busily promoted Dawson's Creek, Felicity, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on AOL's entertainment sites. WB figures the AOL connection helped it to reverse last year's fall in the ratings.

Of course, the TV season still has seven months to go. What will really count is how a new show plays next week, and the week after that. Like a movie that opens well and then tanks, splashy ads aren't much help when the product is a turkey.