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COVER STORY: Marketing Madness

To promote its freshman Monday-night computer-geek show, Chuck, NBC dispatched the premiere to iTunes, Yahoo, and cable operators.

If that wasn’t enough, it plastered show images on popcorn bags and cardboard cutouts in theaters and inserted pop-up ads of the show’s fictional “Buy More” stores in Rolling Stone.

NBC is also wrapping New York’s Times Square subway shuttle with Chuck graphics, giving out preview DVDs at Circuit City and launching a new customizable Web site designed to mock the desktop of the show’s titular character, with e-mail, photos, games and videos and music from the series.

Sound like a lot? Although NBC is paying an estimated $8 million in paid media to promote the new show, its tactics are fairly straightforward. With the fall season just weeks away, broadcast networks are all rolling out their annual tidal wave of such marketing tactics.

But this summer, more than any before, marketers at the broadcast networks are asking a core question: Do pricey campaigns help to keep a show on the air?

That question has added urgency this year: Broadcasters are forced to market themselves out of a hole. The networks just finished their least-viewed summer ever, with cable outdrawing them two-to-one in the crucial 18-49 demo. The budgets to promote their fall slates -- around $30 million-50 million each (excluding their own air and company assets) -- haven’t grown, and they have little time to market the shows beginning after Labor Day.

CBS is premiering new series Cane and Big Bang Theory on American Airlines flights before they air on TV and offering TiVo subscribers a new show in advance.

NBC is running promotions of its shows in gas stations, supermarkets, sports arenas, big-box stores, taxis and on United Airlines.

Fox hosted a press conference for bloggers in New Orleans to build buzz for its post-Katrina drama, K-Ville, and let them meet showrunner Jonathan Lisco.

ABC is making its shows’ characters into real people through gossip ads about them in the glossies.

And The CW is blitzing malls and bars with show-branded giveaways designed to appeal to its young-adult audiences.

Every spring, senior executives from the broadcast networks huddle together to figure out how to market the shows they’ve just sold to advertisers in the upfront market. Since ABC’s fruitful decision in 2004 to throw marketing assets between its two most important properties, Lost and Desperate Housewives, networks pick priority shows to promote, based on obligations to the studios that finance them and the talent that star in them, as well as competitive strategy. In the end, a lot of it is a gamble.

“We all sit in there and say, ‘This is what we think will work and we’re going to take these shots,’ and everybody wishes we were a little better at it,” said NBC Universal TV marketing chief John Miller.

Network marketers admit that picking promotions for shows is akin to gambling in Las Vegas. “People just splatter it all out there and they pray that something’s going to stick, especially when you’re going when everybody else is going,” said Lewis Goldstein, the former chief marketer for Fox and the WB, who, along with Bob Bibb, last week was named co-chief marketing officer of cable’s Lifetime Television. “But being strategic is more important than ever.”

Despite the odds for success and enormous resources thrown into individual campaigns, a network can pour all of the money it’s got into promoting a show, only to have viewers tune en masse into something they didn’t push at all. Indeed, if a network gets just one or two shows to stick around the following season, it’s had a successful year.

Networks know they can’t afford to do “instant-cake-box marketing,” said Jeff Gregor, chief marketing officer for Turner Broadcasting System’s cable networks TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies. And while cable’s marketing “priorities” are naturally defined by virtue of the fact that they have but a handful of originals, they, like broadcast networks, know that “every campaign needs to be made from scratch with all different ingredients of what you want to accomplish.”

Turner, for example, reaped the rewards of customized campaigns for new summer shows like TNT’s Saving Grace and TBS’ The Bill Engvall Show in the way of record ratings.

Awareness polling, competitive scheduling factors and talent obligations can influence spending, but so do serendipitous meetings. Even though they’ve spent months focusing on “priority” shows, for example, “all someone has to do is be at a cocktail party and hear, ‘Hey, I haven’t heard enough about this other show,’ and the next week the department is told to go and put more money into it,” Bibb said. “Everyone knows they’re heading into this brick wall, but there’s no way around it.”

While advertising about new shows on their own airtime is still their most powerful marketing tool, networks more than ever are using an arsenal of other tactics to lure viewers.

NBC, for example, will host in-home Friday Night Lights viewing parties for 15,000 women and sell Saturday Night Live DVDs in Starbucks.

The CW, with celebrity glossy OK!, will promote its new soap Gossip Girl, with a $1,000 sweepstakes to hip Los Angeles-based clothing store Kitson, which will dress its storefront mannequins like the show’s characters in the days before its premiere. The network is also handing out Gossip Girl cell-phone and Blackberry charms at malls and “It Guides” listing cool sites to hang out in top markets.

For its new dramedy, Reaper, the CW created a custom drink and is dispatching representatives to serve it in bars.

For Pushing Daisies, ABC is sending street teams to literally push daisies on passersby at events in top markets, and it held a star-filled screening at the Hollywood Forever cemetery (the show’s protagonist can bring the dead back to life with the touch of a finger). For Dirty Sexy Money, the network this summer placed mock gossip items about the characters -- a rich, New York-based, clan named the Darlings -- in celebrity magazines, blogs and radio shows. And it flew towplanes with Dirty banners over New York’s tony Hamptons.

ABC will also wrap posters around commuter vans to its parent company, Disney, designed to make it look like the cast of new series Carpoolers is driving. It will also plaster mall elevators with Dancing with the Stars “clings” that give the appearance of the stars joining together to dance when the doors close. Ugly Betty gets her own video: Singer Mika re-records “Big Girl” with lyrics custom made for the show.

“At the heart of what we’re doing is trying to make the marketing more entertaining, as opposed to us just selling something,” said Michael Benson, executive vice president of marketing for ABC Entertainment. “If we’re doing things that are just kind of ordinary, it becomes wallpaper and just doesn’t get noticed.”

Sparse budgets more than ever have forced the networks to enlist other parts of their media family to pitch in. CBS, for example, is enlisting other CBS-owned assets to help push its shows; in-house publishing company Simon & Schuster has been recruited to blitz book-club e-mail lists with pertinent show information. Several advertisers will act as marquee sponsors when the shows premiere and promote them through retail outlets.

NBC U is also drawing on its in-house assets -- not surprisingly, its eight cable channels will all provide time for spots for the network shows and, for the first time ever, the company’s Universal Studios theme parks will devote all of their advertising space to an NBC show, blanketing the parks on Labor Day with promotions for Bionic Woman.

The Web, of course, has evolved into a sophisticated promotional tool for all of the networks. Last week, for example, Fox began running episodes of its shows on, as opposed to MySpace, where it had run them in the past, and unveiled redesigned show sites where message boards have been given more prominence, chief Bill Bradford said.

ABC also beefed up community features on its site and devoted an HD channel on its proprietary broadband player to new series.

NBC said it spent just 1% of its marketing budget on digital three years ago, but now it is one of its biggest marketing spends, Miller said. As with Chuck, the network gave full premieres of its new shows to iTunes, Web sites like Facebook and and several cable operators before their TV debuts in exchange for promotional help.

Competitors, however, scoffed that NBC has to promote its proactive digital efforts because it finished last season in last in fourth place and has only four new series to premiere.

Regardless, the issue of whether to put full episodes online before they premiere on TV divides network marketers. CBS falls in the middle, keepings full episodes of its shows off the Web until after they premiere, in favor of giving its Web site lengthy clips instead.

“We take into account the behavior of the consumer online,” said CBS Marketing Group president George Schweitzer. “How many people are going to sit there and download an hour-long program versus watching it in another form?”

ABC swears off the process entirely, saying that it cannibalizes the audience for a show’s premiere -- ever more important as trigger-happy executives pull shows almost immediately if they don’t initially post good numbers.

Miller says such cannibalization just doesn’t happen. “It’s not necessarily all about a show’s first airing, it’s about creating a franchise that can work 22-100 episodes and our job is getting it sampled,” he said. “We want to create evangelistic fans who will create a word-of-mouth army for us.”