ABC's Strategy for Anatomy

ABC’s tough fall promotion issues may not be "desperate," but they are challenging. The network is introducing seven scripted series and would have liked to use its summer schedule to trumpet those shows. Unfortunately, ABC’s summer hasn’t been hot, creating the need for some more on-air promo time and requiring it to boost outside paid advertising.

So what’s a No. 2 network (in adults 18-49) to do? ABC has chosen to play to its strengths and load up its fixed on-air and paid-media budget behind marquee series, starting with a big push for its top hit, Grey’s Anatomy. In fact, Grey’s budget will equal the spending behind the now-legendary launch campaigns for Desperate Housewives and Lost two years ago.

While that might seem counterproductive, the network’s plan is to use Grey and other hits to anchor nights featuring sets of debuts. Grey faces a challenge: It’s moving to Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET, where it will have to prop up two new series and compete with CBS hit CSI.

The network took a different tack last season, "relaunching" Lost and Desperate Housewives while pushing two new critical favorites—Invasion and Commander in Chief—among nine debuts. The two series failed, along with the entire fall class, and now ABC is looking to avoid a repeat.

"While we love our new shows, moving Grey’s to Thursdays is a priority for us," says ABC marketing chief Mike Benson. "We take nothing for granted and can’t automatically assume that fans of Grey’s know that it is moving."

Benson won’t talk money, except to say that ABC’s marketing budget will mirror last season’s. In general, the major networks pump $5 million-$10 million into promoting high-profile shows, with overall fall network promotion budgets estimated at $50 million-plus. A large percentage of those dollars will also be spent on ABC anchors Lost, Housewives and Dancing With the Stars, though Grey’s is in line for the biggest portion.

At ABC, anticipation is high for the new comedy Ugly Betty, which will now move from its original Friday post to the competitive 8 p.m. Thursday lead-off. It replaces comedies Big Day and Notes From the Underbelly, now set to debut later in the season. New drama Six Degrees follows Grey’s at 10 p.m. Two other comedies, Big Day and Notes From the Underbelly, will now debut later in the season.

Benson plans to begin the "groundbreaking, massive and multifaceted" marketing campaign for Grey’s this week and says it will rival the attention paid to the network’s famed 2004 launches. Among other tactics then, ABC placed 10,000 plastic bottles on beaches, each containing letters that read, "I’m Lost. Find me on ABC."

The earlier campaign set off a wave of competition among networks topping each other in stunts. Benson believes the Grey’s campaign will work similar magic. Using such catchphrases as "Thursday is the new Grey," the network will deploy traditional, guerilla and viral marketing partially linked to music and affiliate Web tie-ins.

The Grey’s campaign will rely on descriptors associating the show with the words "love," "feel" and "crave." "The biggest shift we’ve made," Benson says, "is that we really understand the core essence of a program."

ABC execs will also promote a Housewives that they promise has been regenerated creatively, after a season in which it was critically hammered. The returning Extreme Makeover: Home Edition at 8 p.m. will also get promo play. Housewives will lead into another touted newcomer at 10 p.m. Sundays, Calista Flockhart drama Brothers & Sisters.

That show has its own issues: Last week, highly regarded executive producer/showrunner Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) abruptly departed. The split, reportedly over differences with creator/executive producer Jon Robin Baitz, followed casting changes that had Sally Field replacing Betty Buckley in the pilot.

ABC faces other obstacles: Audience reach this summer dropped 5% year to year, when Dancing With the Stars was on the schedule. The loss hurt a vital on-air promo platform for the fall, forcing Benson to make "minor" adjustments.

But he’s not worried, since he says he routinely alters marketing strategies. The only question is whether they will help turn Thursday into a brighter shade of Grey.