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Has Network TV Become Irrelevant?

  |  June 1, 2007   |  Comments

What TV networks can do online to remain important offline to both consumers and advertisers.

I'm a loyal reader of "Confessions of an Aca-Fan," a blog written by MIT Comparative Media Studies Program director Henry Jenkins, and a recent post got me thinking.

The post explores how the broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) should rebrand themselves as consumer media consumption behavior shifts from passive to on-demand (and time-shifted/place-shifted) viewing. The post reprinted the essay of a Sloan MBA student (and former student of Jenkins), Eleanor Baird, and investigates "how broadcast networks can respond to the changing and converging media environment by promoting themselves as distinct brands of television."

It's an insightful essay that calls out work done by business and media scholars to make its points. Here are the highlights:

  • The four major networks lack consistent brand identities when compared to the more niche cable networks, like ESPN, The History Channel, and Comedy Central. They are mass programmers whose mass audiences have historically consumed content more passively, in blocks, á la NBC's "Must See TV." This has worked because consumers depend on the networks to act as curators of good content. But audience consumption behavior is changing, and the Internet is the perfect example of how it's manifesting itself. Furthermore, the networks rely on inaccurate metrics for advertisers to base their purchasing decisions on, yet getting advertisers to look at any other forms of ratings is an uphill battle.

  • Over the last few years, advertisers have begun to shift dollars to cable to reach harder-to-find, smaller, more targeted audience segments.

  • Because of heavier DVR use, advertisers want their network ad dollars integrated with content, in ways that achieve product presence rather than product placement. However, accurate methods and standards of measuring these placements remain out of reach.

  • Time-shifted and place-shifted viewing weakens audience identification with the broadcast networks and strengthens associations with more instantly gratifying methods of viewing, such as TV-on-DVD, on-demand, and digital platforms.

  • Consumers have almost been spoiled by ad-free content (or with easily skippable advertising). But providing so many options for ad-free consumption reduces the networks' ability to cross-promote other programming.

  • Although the networks have done their best to build online destinations for consumers to visit, most site traffic has been delivered by on-air mentions. While this may provide a solution to cross-promotion problems, heavy broadcast TV viewers are less likely to watch streaming video (5 percent) than heavy cable viewers (15 percent).

  • Online broadcast network destinations, while certainly garnering significant Web site traffic, don't effectively help brand the networks. Some site aspects have even been deemed unsuccessful.

The essay suggests that broadcast networks should be branded to reinforce the network as a metabrand and its content as subbrands. But it's ambiguous how this can be done in the face of rapidly changing consumption patterns. After all, as Bob Garfield recently wrote:

The value of TV, like the value of anything, is built upon the economics of scarcity. For decades, the source of highly produced entertainment was limited to three or four distributors -- i.e., the major networks. Cable expanded the options tenfold, then, with digital cable, 100-fold. Now the internet promises to do so infinitely. Strictly speaking, as a distributor of goods, broadcast's revenue structure should have collapsed long ago.

I've been thinking about this ever since I read the lengthy essay and have concluded there are ways the networks can remain relevant to today's content-driven audiences. There will always be a place for broadcast networks. Jenkins states that "once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within a larger system of communication options" -- it never really goes away.

To retain the power they're seemingly bleeding, the networks must justify their presence in consumers' mindshare. But what defines these networks' brands (and ultimately the rationale for mindshare) isn't what you might think. It's not their logos, colors, or personalities. Their programming is too diverse for that.

These brands should differentiate themselves with their strategies of consumer embracement, community development and cultivation, and extension of their content onto multiple platforms. This means not just making it available, but providing other, original ways for consumers to interact with their favorite programming. If these strategies are followed with sound tactics, the advertising dollars will follow.

Embracing Consumers

For many years, broadcast networks have existed within a medium that relied on audiences being tuned into programming at the moment it airs. Advertisers knew that at any given moment, millions of eyeballs were trained on their commercials.

Oh, how times have changed.

Mass media consumption is done on consumers' time now. Sure, people actually watch more TV than ever, but on their terms. The Web is the best place for networks not only to speak to their audiences when they want to be spoken to but to actually listen to their audiences. Keeping a programming schedule that's finely attuned to what audiences tell you they want (not just what focus groups may tell you) and making it flexible enough to be able to react to those desires will make audiences feel the network works for them.

Without advertising, there's no programming. Without audiences, there's no advertising. This ecosystem needs to exist for the entertainment business to continue as a business. If consumers are embraced properly, enough goodwill can be created to find ways in which audiences not only tolerate advertising but actually accept it.

Developing and Cultivating Community

The next step is providing every opportunity for consumers to embrace not only the programming but also each other. While conversation should be a free for all, having individuals dedicated to moderating and participating in online communities allows for groundswells around programming and gives advertisers a centralized location to reach the most passionate viewers.

Many networks already embrace community, but how they'll ultimately use it to their greatest advantage remains to be seen. FOX has MySpace, CBS has Last.fm, and others are sure to follow in their footsteps. Acquisitions are one thing; proper applications of those acquisitions are another, however. Just how they will affect viewership or tune in to off- or online programming has yet to be determined.

Sustained cultivation of audiences within these communities will allow them to grow more rapidly than any on-air cross-promotion can currently do.

Extending Content

All the networks are exploring digital (or even just Web-based) content distribution strategies to increase programming viewership and ad impressions. NBC and FOX have their plans. CBS has its plan. We're still waiting on ABC's plans for ubiquitous distribution of content (assuming it has them).

But when audiences don't even exhibit loyalty to programming when it returns from any kind of hiatus (NBC's "Heroes" lost 2.6 million viewers after a seven-week hiatus), how can networks expect them to exhibit loyalty to their brand?

By extending storylines, characters, and experiences to multiple platforms.

Webisodes, mobisodes, and fan-created content are examples of original content extensions that can be created at a lesser or low production expense but can have huge audience retention. It gives audiences more ways to interact with programming and advertisers more ways to give their products a truly integrated customized presence within programming. And measurement can be significantly improved by creating these digital extensions, giving advertisers a better handle on what they're buying.

One thing is certain: being able to constantly find new, original ways to extend content and experiences will require a commitment to technology, fostering new and existing talent and partnerships to help their tactics evolve with their audiences.

The network that can do all these things best will succeed not only in establishing relevancy with audiences and advertisers but also in making audiences more likely to tune into new programming -- knowing the network's platform will create an experience that will make the programming better. Audiences will associate that experience with the content (the subbrand) and the network (metabrand). The end result? Loyalty.

And what advertiser wouldn't want to be associated with a brand that has truly loyal consumers?

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Ian Schafer

Ian Schafer, CEO and founder of Deep Focus, consistently redefines the way entertainment properties are marketed online. Ian founded Deep Focus in 2002 to bring a holistic suite of interactive marketing and promotional solutions to the entertainment industry. The company's clients include America Online, Dimension Films, HBO, MGM, Nickelodeon, Sony/BMG Music, 20th Century Fox, Universal Music Group, and many others. As former VP of New Media at Miramax and Dimension Films, Ian was responsible for their most popular online campaigns. He's been featured as an expert in online entertainment marketing and advertising in numerous media outlets including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Advertising Age, and CNN.

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