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Cover Story: A Tough Summer Sell

Only a couple of years ago, summer meant easy ratings gains for cable channels. While the broadcast networks packed in their slick series and went on vacation, the bigger cable networks with original series set out to lure viewers and hold them through the fall.

Those days of easy ratings are gone. Top cable entertainment networks USA and TNT are premiering six and four originals, respectively, this summer—the most ever. Broadcast networks now finance pricier reality shows during the summer. At the same time, smaller cable networks that never premiered summer scripted originals are doing so; AMC, for example, is offering its first scripted drama, Mad Men, in July. In short, this summer boasts more new shows on television than ever before. For cable marketers, the warm months are anything but relaxing.

All the competition has left marketers at big cable networks with the difficult task of making their shows stand out. Cable networks are going to greater lengths than ever to market their summer shows: They’re starting earlier, hunting harder for promotional partners, and testing the most unorthodox stunts to corral viewers. A&E trapped a star in cement in Times Square, HBO is sending surfers in wetsuits down city streets, and TNT, USA and Style Network have all launched nail polishes with tie-in names, such as TNT’s “Closer Crimson”.

“We used to feel there was definitely the sense that summer was a better window, a less competitive window,” says FX marketing chief Stephanie Gibbons. “Now that has narrowed. We’re facing more competition than we ever have in the past.

“Being a marketer,” she adds, “I can never remember not feeling the hands at my throat, so that intensity is always present, but now there are somewhere over 80 shows to compete with on an original-programming basis. The sheer volume of that is overwhelming.”

Cable networks are also being more selective than ever, putting resources into just a few key projects they hope will draw viewers to their other fare.

“Cable networks are the scrappers,” says USA Network/Sci Fi Channel President Bonnie Hammer. USA pumped marketing resources into limited series The Starter Wife, which premiered May 31, in an effort to bring viewers to the network earlier in the season and retain them for less-promoted shows debuting later in the summer.

“We grew up not having money so we know how to make the best out of every penny we have,” Hammer says. “It’s a matter of choosing how to spend money, and cablers are very good in general when they’re spending money in knowing when it’s going to be effective.”

Cable marketing executives are strapped with comparatively smaller budgets than broadcasters. The biggest entertainment networks have $9 million-$10 million, at most, to promote each of their biggest series, executives say. The midsize networks have $4 million-$5 million per show—a fraction of the $20 million-$30 million that the broadcast networks push toward each of their new fall shows.

Still, with summer TV viewing growing to a record 57 hours, 39 minutes per household per week in 2006, according to Nielsen, cable networks have an increasing incentive to grab a share of the pie.

Says Turner Entertainment Networks President Steve Koonin, “The old wives’ tale that people don’t watch TV in the summer is insanity.”

Cable networks are spending slightly more than in the past, but marketing budgets have not risen significantly, which is why networks have to be more efficient in their spending. Says Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick, “It’s not a factor so much that marketing budgets have increased but the demand for more impact from marketing has increased.”

In addition to spending on traditional media—print, outdoor, TV, radio and theater—cable marketers are advertising in a variety of new venues, including online, to ensure that viewers notice their shows. Gibbons and the FX team, promoting young-skewing returning comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, are among a number of networks stepping up their push on college campuses, now that Nielsen has started tracking viewership there.

FX is driving a network-branded RV to universities across the country, where students can shoot scenes in front of a reproduction of the show’s barroom set, the best of which could make it on TV. In a separate contest, called Sunny Superfan, viewers can send in clips to win billboards on Sunset Boulevard and in Times Square, as well as having their video-diary segments run on TV and on the show’s Website.

To promote new college-set drama Greek, ABC Family hosted screenings at fraternity and sorority houses, sponsored sorority volleyball tournaments, and left door hangers with Greek logos on dorm-room doors. When the summer series premieres, the network will launch a “Virtual Rush” Website, where visitors can socially network in fictional online frats.

Cable networks are also invading nail salons. Three of them paired with leading nail-polish manufacturer Essie Cosmetics to create promotional polishes: “Closer Crimson,” for example, is tied to TNT series The Closer. USA launched a six-color line for The Starter Wife: “Pinking up the Pieces,” “Red-y Set Ex,” “E-nuff,” “My Way,” “Starter Wife,” and “Wife Goes On.” Style Network has a nail polish, “Style Berry,” simply tied to its channel.

“Consumers are completely inundated with messages on a 24/7 basis, and their attention span is much shorter than it used to be,” says TBS/TNT/TCM marketing chief Jeff Gregor. “In order to impress them, to remind them, to keep them, you have to catch them around the corner, up the stairwell, in all kinds of places.”

To promote TBS’ new family-focused sitcom The Bill Engvall Show, for example, Gregor and his team plastered decals on grocery-store floors and affixed posters to the aisle walls featuring star comedian Bill Engvall and such phrases as “My wife asked me to pick up some vegetables. Do corn chips count?” TBS expects the show to skew female, so beverage- and snack-aisle supermarket ads seemed a smart move, says Gregor.

As part of its biggest-ever marketing outlay for one show, AMC plans to bombard commuters in July, buying all the above-ground advertising space in the main hub of New York’s Grand Central Terminal for Mad Men, a 1960s period piece about the advertising industry.

Women’s network Lifetime took a different approach to finding female viewers for this year’s new summer dramas, such as Army Wives. For the first time, the network bought pricey, 30-second spots—estimated at as much as $1 million a pop—in the season finales of female-friendly series on broadcast TV, including Desperate Housewives, American Idol and Law & Order: SVU.


To wage an effective marketing campaign, the timing has to be perfect. Go out too early, and you risk wasting money if viewers become numb to the messages before the series premieres. But wait too long, and you risk getting lost in the crowd. This year, most networks started early.

ABC Family began promoting Greek at fraternities and sororities during spring break, months before the show’s July premiere. Capitalizing on viewer interest in the final episodes of The Sopranos, HBO started promoting summer shows Big Love and John From Cincinnati on its own air last April.

Cable networks, like Bravo, have taken advantage of their online products to promote shows long before they launch. Executives point out that, while industry focus has been on whether online products can generate revenue, they remain valuable as marketing tools.

“I need to get one hour in my consumer’s busy, busy, media-consumptive, high-wage-earning, second-home-owning life, and I need them to turn those lights on very bright all of a sudden—and then sustain that week after week,” says Bravo’s Zalaznick.

“Online and in the digital world,” she adds, “our shows live 365 days a year. On [Bravo-owned], our lights are on long before and long after actual on-air episodes.”

Through a partnership with Pond’s—the network’s biggest to date with a consumer-product supplier—USA was able to begin marketing The Starter Wife as early as January 2006. The cosmetics company launched a contest called “40 and Fabulous” in January and helped start a retail campaign in big-box stores, including Wal-Mart, which ran 20-second video spots; Kmart, which ran radio spots; and Costco. USA says that it reached more than 500 million people with the promotion.

USA alone would not have been able to spend so early on marketing, but the Pond’s partnership yielded spikes in consumer awareness nearly six months before the show launched.

Similarly, MTV brought in a slew of co-marketers to drum up interest in its 2007 Movie Awards. Old Navy held an in-store contest, Vitamin water filled the green room with samples, and GM sponsored an ad-free pre-show.

“The key to those partnerships is really bringing together two brands where each of us brings something to the party, and it’s not just about media. It’s about the message that’s out there with their product,” says USA marketing chief Chris McCumber. “It’s a way for you to have more marketing muscle and different conversations about the show.”


Networks face another balancing act with street marketing. This summer, cable marketers are executing zany stunts to generate that ever-elusive buzz around their series. But street marketing can be costly and reaches only a small sample of people: those who happen to actually see the stunts.

USA, for example, sent five Juicy Couture-sweatsuit-clad women driving down the streets of New York and Los Angeles on pink scooters with license plates that read “Wife Goes On” during the week of May 24. Teams in top-10 markets handed out co-branded Pond’s cosmetics and fake diamond rings on city streets.

HBO is sending guys in wetsuits to carry surfboards down city streets in top-10 markets on June 10 to hawk its new surf noir drama John From Cincinnati.

E! infiltrated beaches over Memorial Day weekend with teams of beefcake guys carrying canoes with Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie look-alikes to promote its new season of The Simple Life, starring the celebs.

“A lot of the ideas you can come up with are fun but don’t reach a mass enough to argue a return on investment,” says E! Networks marketing chief Suzanne Kolb. “Most people aren’t where you can throw the pebble into the pond so that it can make a big enough ripple.”

Kolb and her team thought the stunt was worth the cost since anything regarding Hilton and Richie these days generates media attention.

Street marketing can be a risky business for networks. Cartoon Network famously bungled a stunt for its Adult Swim nighttime block with lighted boxes that Boston officials thought resembled bombs and promptly shut down the city. Cartoon General Manager Jim Samples resigned over the stunt weeks later. Now networks are more closely assessing perceived risks to public safety.

“A real wet blanket was put on a lot of that kind of marketing after what happened at Cartoon Network,” says A&E Executive VP/General Manager Bob DeBitetto. “We all have to be more careful in what we’re doing in light of what happened.”

A&E put magician Criss Angel, the star of its returning reality show, in a glass box above Times Square last week, filled it with cement and tasked him with escaping in 24 hours.

Despite all of the competition on TV, cable networks see marketing opportunity online. Many have launched MySpace and YouTube pages, as well as stand-alone Websites for each show. Many are offering at least one or two full episodes online to generate early awareness. Some, including ABC Family, are sending text messages to potential viewers of their shows.

Most cable marketing executives cite the Internet not as a competitor for its viewers’ attention but as one of the best ways to efficiently reach them.

Says FX’s Gibbons, “As a marketer, there’s never enough money, so it’s always about looking and choosing where you want to be and at what level.”