Commentary

Testing, Testing: Broadcast, Cable, Syndication, All Differ In Approach

Television is a big testing ground for marketers. But what is the test for a new TV program?

According to Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, every producer needs to test -- especially in syndication. Stations and programmers can save a lot of money and time by testing in perhaps limited station deals.

Debmar-Mercury says station executives need extra insurance; Marcus can point to the fact that "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" works well by first going to 10 stations before heading full throttle into wide release.

Other really big syndicators say they do testing as well. CBS Television Distribution will point to personalities such as Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, and The Doctors being tested with heavy guest star engagements on CBS' existing syndication shows like "Oprah Winfrey," before getting their own programs.

But testing costs money. On the network side of things, that's where the TV development season comes in, and those sometimes $5 million an episode pilots. Pilots give TV executives the chance to examine what works and what doesn't. It's only one episode. Why commit to a nine- or 13-episode order if you don't know what you've got?

NBC doesn't necessarily believe in this -- since every show gets adjusted to some degree. If you have the fortitude, and a decent idea, go forward because new TV shows always seem to change anyway. In that mode of thinking, NBC believes it can save perhaps tens of millions of dollars.

This is how cable works,  more or less. Most shows go virtually straight to series, four to six episodes, with the chance to do more. No doubt cable's dual revenue stream model is a financial buffer when programs fail.                
Cable proponents will say this process works -- just look at the numbers: This year,  cable programming is up 10% in prime-time viewing, while big four networks are down 7%. For viewers 18 to 49, cable is up 9%, while  broadcast is down 11%.

But truth is, not everything works in cable. TBS failed spectacularly with the Steven Bochco courtroom drama, "Raising The Bar," which had great initial success and fell quickly after that.  

Networks had fewer pilots this year, which I guess means less testing -- and its numbers went down. Cable doesn't really test -- but its numbers go up.

Is cable's record better -- or is there much more tolerance for crappy shows
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4 comments about "Testing, Testing: Broadcast, Cable, Syndication, All Differ In Approach ".
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  1. Walter Graff from Bluesky Media, December 15, 2008 at 10:39 a.m.

    A flip around the cable dial shows there is a lot of tolerance for crap. Most of what cable plays is crap. Networks are held to a higher bar because in one hour networks get more viewers than the top five cable channels combined. Less room for error. Cable viewers per show are on a good night in the hundreds of thousands. A lot less is on the line from an advertising perspective.

  2. Jesus m. Medina-rodrigueze from MoonLeopard Productions, December 15, 2008 at 11:38 a.m.

    Ask yourself, what would you rather watch, crap like 'deal or no deal', or a good episode of 'Law and Order'? To a viewer it doesn't mean anything that its on cable or on a network, when you think 'SURVIVOR' is better than DEXTER or even THE LIBRARIAN, then you shouldn't be programming a network. Yes, there is a lot of crap in cable, so they try things because they have nothing to loose. And as a viewer, ask yourself what you would rather watch.

  3. Suzanne Sell from Independent, December 15, 2008 at 11:58 a.m.

    I don't know how you're defining "test," but cable does test pilots using the same research methodology as the broadcast nets--perhaps not its cheaply produced half-hour lifestyle fare, but certainly its big-ticket scripted drama series. And there are quite a few of those these days!

    The differences between broadcast and cable are that broadcast has traditionally put more projects through the development phase, and because of this, cable may sometimes be less likely to ditch a project that has generated mediocre research.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 15, 2008 at 2:31 p.m.

    What are the production cost differences? Salary differences? Cable has shorter seasons and different time lines. How much of a difference does that make in development, costs and actor availabilities? It's going to be a biting next few years.

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