Commentary

Eye Wide Open

My daughter has embraced "I Love Lucy" in TVLand reruns lately, which fills her media maven dad with such pride. It also gives me the opportunity to teach her a few things about TV history, the golden era when networks actually mattered. I was old enough to catch the tail end of CBS's total dominance of prime time. I witnessed the decline of mass entertainment via "Gunsmoke" and the Paul Henning rural comedies ("Green Acres," Beverly Hillbillies," et. al.) and the historic transition to demographically targeted programming ("Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the Norman Lear comedies). When she watches "The Munsters" I can wax nostalgic for the days when ABC was a perennial bottom feeder that would try pretty much anything to attract the remnants of CBS's and NBC's audience. I was the kid who had the whole prime time schedule committed to memory so my family never needed to consult TV Guide. I studied the Fall Preview issue as if it were the Old Testament.

"Oh, my God, Dad, you were a dweeb even then?"

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OK, that media lecture didn't get us anywhere, but you always hope your kids retain some of what you impart to them.

My "dweebiness" notwithstanding, I bring this experience forward to the current situation and wonder what role mobile plays in this next historic transition. TV networks are barely clinging to their relevance in a world where individual shows are the brands and franchises, and the well-targeted cable channels are in a better position to claim programming identities. Do consumers even know, let alone care, which of the big three broadcast networks serves them what programming? And so, when CBS Mobile Executive Vice President Cyriac Roeding tells me "our focus is to be the most innovative player out there," I have to wonder whether mobile can help networks maintain an identity and a function with consumers -- even as content fragments into so many shards of clips and shows.

CBS has been on a mobile programming blitz this summer, partnering with four ad networks, launching Big Brother accompaniments on Verizon Mobile TV and VCast, and just yesterday announcing that full-length episodes of Letterman and Ferguson late night shows will be available next day on VCast. "We are trying to push the envelope in two directions, innovation and truly mobile experiences," says Roeding. "The cell phone is not just another outlet and not a small TV screen. Whoever fails to see that is going to miss out on a lot of opportunities."

While I am sure that putting full episodes of late-night shows on phones does not quite follow this tenet, Roeding generally points to instances of novel "platforming," where mobile was used in a unique way that tied back to prime-time programming. An "America's Next Top Model" tamagotchi-like mobile game let users play one of the reality show's contestants until the character actually gets evicted from the show. A Coldplay ringtone had a role in an episode of "CSI" last year, and viewers could download it themselves. Creative mobile executions seem to be part of the larger CBS strategy to make franchises like "CSI" come to life in different ways on each platform so that they don't just put content when and where people want it (as the new mantra goes) but adapt to the different functionality of each technology.

This all makes sense theoretically, of course, but we still don't know exactly what TV viewers want from their multiple platforms. Our short digital history is littered with bright ideas -- like parallel plotlines running online, and blogs by fictional characters - that garnered more yawns than enthusiasm from audiences. For all we know at this early stage, users really do just want to grab snippets of prime-time linear programming on phones or online. We just don't know yet.

What is certain is that advertising will underwrite this process of experimentation and exploration. "Mobile content will get refinanced by advertising to take some of the burden off of the consumer's shoulder," says Roeding, and that in turn will enhance distribution and make the mobile platform all the more attractive to ad clients. He sees CBS working both on and off-deck, across paid platforms like VCast as well as ad-supported WAP and ad-subsidized on deck video. A recent deal with Sprint will allow CBS mobile video on the deck to carry ads via Rhythm NewMedia. CBS already works with Third Screen and now adds Millenial and AdMob for much of the off-deck presence. The AdMob deal in particular adds another tier of advertisers to the mix, since anyone can place an ad into that network from the AdMob Web site. Roeding admits he is in the testing stage with ad networks, trying o see which ones work best in practice and deliver the best revenue.

But what really bears watching is whether novel uses of multi-platform programming can maintain a TV network's identity. As I have already mentioned in the past, CBS was among the first to market with news alerts via SMS, and that first-in strategy helped secure its place on my phone even though I ignore CBS News otherwise. There does seem to be room for leveraging a new platform to retain or grab some viewer loyalty to an entity like a TV network. But whether a network gains a reputation for being innovative in mobile may have less to do with grabbing consumer loyalty than with advertiser interest, however. Being able to target an audience on one platform and then follow them across their devices with media brands and its sponsor could be very compelling.

What is most interesting to me about a robust cross-platform strategy for TV is the way it might initiate a return to a very old model, the singular sponsorship. I doubt very much a network's digital distribution strategies will help stem the historical tide of fragmenting consumer loyalties. But these moves could well be the things that keep networks relevant to media buyers. Imagine if a sponsor could bolt itself to a media property in prime time and then stick with that same viewer online and on mobile. The messaging could be less intrusive because it is ubiquitous, and the sponsor could be seen clearly underwriting a media experience for the consumer.

Just as "Tonight on CBS" may have meant something to me as a kid, cross-platform sponsorship models could polish the dusty phrase "brought to you by... ."

And give me another opportunity to deliver a "dweeby" media history lecture to my kid.

"Borax? Dad, I don't think there's anything like Borax anymore."

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