The Emperor’s New Broadcast Season

I’ve been fond of writing about the spell broadcast television networks seem to have cast on media buyers, and how that spell limits the growth of interactive advertising. In last spring’s upfront, as broadcast network viewership remained flat and the networks relied on reality shows to skew demographics, media buyers pumped over $9.3 billion into broadcast advertising executives’ pockets. It was a 13 percent increase over the previous upfront, far outpacing anyone’s expectations. Rational observers could only ask, “Why?”

Meanwhile, interactive advertising continues to kick, claw and scratch for media buyers’ attention, despite the fact Internet usage continues to grow rapidly, particularly among the younger demographics advertisers are so eager to reach without the silly promotional gimmicks known as sweeps. Based on early ratings for this fall’s broadcast TV programs, it appears broadcast over-promised and now under-delivers.

It may help break the spell.

Whispering Villagers

To be fair, the fall season has just begun. In recent weeks, water cooler talk of “When 72 Year-Old Men Attack!” drove the nation’s eyeballs to the Major League Baseball playoffs. That said, the broadcast networks are off to a horrific start.

The New York Times reported last week that cash cow broadcast programs E.R. and Friends “are losing significant numbers of viewers from previous years.” New programs such as “The Next Joe Millionaire” and “Skin” opened in a manner that would have meant overnight closings, were they Broadway plays. The Joe-redux premiere reeled in just 6.8 million viewers, despite heavy promotion during the Major League playoffs. The decline was 63 percent lower than the Original Joe premiere, and 83 percent lower than the Original Joe finale.

Most disturbing to the networks is an apparent complete disappearance of young male viewers, a segment coveted by advertisers. Nielsen reports a 12 percent viewership decline among men 18-34, and a more worrisome 20 percent drop among men 18-24. Nielsen’s evaluating a variety of explanations for this precipitous drop. According to The Times, high on the list of possibilities are increases in video game play and DVD viewing.

The Emperor’s Getting Nervous

Broadcast ad execs are pointing fingers. The Times quotes Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC, as saying, “Frankly, what we’re seeing strains credulity.” David F. Poltrack, EVP for research at CBS, said, “You can’t explain a 12 percent decline in men 18 to 34 or close to 20 percent in men 18 to 24 by saying they’re playing a lot more video games.”

Since when is shooting the messenger a professional approach to problem solving?

It’s interesting that these high-powered TV executives never raised concerns about the quality of research when ratings for broadcast television programs soared to unexpected heights. Doesn’t it “strain credulity” that 40 million Americans would tune in to see a man lie to a woman about his finances to gain her affection? Can’t I go to any local singles bar and see that same scene repeated over and over?

The article quoted Steve Sternberg, SVP at media firm Magna Global USA: “I’ve always noticed that we never hear anybody talking about the programming.”

Right, the programming. There’s an idea. Maybe the American public has grown tired of the networks’ penchant for promotional programs. Any marketing professional will tell you gimmicks are short-term solutions, not long-term strategies that build true value. Maybe the broadcast networks fell victim to the short attention span of the viewing public. Ironically, its the same short attention span broadcast television is blamed for creating.

Broadcast advertising executives will send apologies to media buyers for not meeting expectations they created. Note I said “apologies,” not “refunds.” Media buyers will receive make-goods in the form of spots airing during reruns later this year. To make good for an audience shortfall of 14 million viewers on “The Next Joe Millionaire,” Fox will provide 14 spots during “Cops” reruns — spots nobody wanted to buy in the first place. An interesting way to treat your customer, isn’t it?

Tell the Emperor He’s Naked

Wouldn’t media buyers have been better off had they put the incremental billion dollars pumped into broadcast television during the last upfront into interactive advertising? Wouldn’t it have been better to use that money to create new, interesting, innovative online campaigns reaching a vibrant, growing audience of Internet users than to see it end up spent on “Cops” reruns?

Remember this during the next upfront. Think long and hard about allowing media buyers to invest so much of the annual budget in a medium that’s not growing, and one that relies on promotional gimmicks to skew the demographics.

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