Commentary

The Worst Problem Facing TV And Video Today

As I read the musings on the issues confronting broadcast, cable and digital TV, be it funded conventionally by advertisers, plus VOD, Pay-VOD and anything else the wizards of Silicon Valley come up with, it is clear that MediaPost's very-bright analysts are, to be blunt, missing the boat and focusing on secondary concerns.

The most-damaging, viewership-lowering, ROI-suppressing issue facing content funders and delivery systems is that promotion, particularly for scripted series, does not work. At best, all it does is remind the relatively few people who watch a show to tune in again; by definition, it cannot motivate non-viewers to sample.

This leads to the industry's billion-dollar question: in an era containing hundreds or thousands of viewer options, what good is investing millions in content or hundreds of millions in delivery systems, if people cannot be motivated to sample the content? A corollary: why should advertisers, the experts on advertising, invest in branded content, or any product for that matter, having ineffective advertising? After all, more people sampling means more can become loyal.

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The role of promotion is to build value into the show, but the outdated strategy still employed falls well short of that goal. Look at ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC as examples. Each has a billion-dollar promotional budget in paid media plus the value of promotional spots on the network if sold to advertisers, but unfortunately for Disney, Sumner Redstone, News Corp. and GE, it is irrefutable that their promotional messages are totally ineffective. For cable and digital networks, the budgets might be smaller, but the results the same. As for VOD and Pay-VOD, getting people to watch or even fork over money for a huge special or "The Sopranos" is not that hard; the real challenge is: How do you get them to tune into or pay for a new series they have not seen?

Without effective promotion generating high levels of sampling, keep in mind that all the content can do is maintain viewer loyalty after that initial trial. Everything else is a waste of time, money and effort. In fact, extending this, and what producers will find sobering, is that many canceled series did not fail; rather, their promotion did not causing enough sampling -- if it did, many more programs would have been successful.

Some executives running network promotion departments already agree with this. But, for skeptics, the easiest way to prove this is to visit any network's Web site and read the synopsis for an episode of a sitcom or drama you are not familiar with. Then read one for a show you watch.

What you will realize is, when you do not "know" the characters because you have not seen the show, the promotion might as well be in Bulgarian for all the good it does since, with a comedy, you cannot find the humor or, with a drama, appreciate the intrigue. So all the billions spent on promotion do is remind existing viewers, who "know" the characters, to watch a show again. This ensures that lower viewership and cancellation are the natural outcomes, a hit the rarity -- even for great content. And since Web sites deliver more information than TV or radio spots, print or Internet ads, outdoor, etc., even publicity -- those forms of promotion are just as, or more, ineffectual.

Is there a solution to this problem? Yes. The pool of potential samplers must be dramatically expanded from just those few people who have seen the show (prior to its debut, no one is in the pool) to include those who have not. How? Through the adoption of a new promotional model reflecting today's competitive environment. Holding on to the thinking used in the three-network 70s, both pre-premiere and episodic, is totally counterproductive and the single greatest suppressor of revenue and stock prices.

Ironically, since loyalty to most shows is weak, trying a new one is free and the act of sampling is so easy (the viewer just has to hit the remote), viewership gains of 50-to-100% or more in broadcast and cable and by a factor of five, 10, 20 or more in digital are very feasible. In fact, for companies like CBS or NBC-Universal, just correcting this problem can double their market value.

Increasing viewership, maximizing ROI and reducing risk for content providers and delivery systems, and advertisers with branded content, requires one simple thing: a commitment from networks and studios to make slight adjustments in the outdated content development-promotion-sales model. Because once the promotional problem is addressed, you'd be amazed how many others will evaporate.

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