Hint to Broadcast Networks: Bold Is Beautiful

NBC’s announcement that it is going to sell $800 million to $900 million less advertising going into the new TV season is a symptom of the battle it and other broadcast networks are losing to cable.

When cable started to expand, it was a certainty that network viewership would erode. With more choices, networks couldn’t maintain the levels they had when there were just three of them, along with a few stations.

For broadcast networks, the problem is the excitement and salability of cable’s original programming. The edginess and high energy of cable programming make it a powerful and competitive product and give it a huge marketing advantage.

Cable programmers learned early on that they must call out to viewers and drag them in. The premium channels have a more classic advertising need: They are selling a product that people have to want to pay for. These networks need to reach and motivate their audience and have had to achieve more with their marketing, which is why one of the most effective entertainment brands in the country right now is HBO.

As an agency that handles a large roster of entertainment clients, we have a saying: “The edgier the program, the edgier the marketing.” The double value here is not just that the programming is newer and more exciting; it is also a marketing tool that traditional networks are having trouble matching. Edgy programming attracts viewers.

The marketing daring goes beyond what is in the ads and includes where the ads are placed. As cable is a freer medium for shows, cable marketers have hawked their programs with edgy ads using media vehicles that are countercultural. This gives them freedom and a direct line to their audience. Cable networks have shown a greater willingness to let their shows brand the network, giving each program’s marketing initiative more freedom to use its individual assets to elicit appeal.

Virtually all cable networks are becoming edgier than broadcast since they can use media and creative that the broadcast networks can’t. For example, A&E, for which my company creates some of the advertising, used doggie bags to promote Dog: The Bounty Hunter, created barf bags for the show Airline, and distributed pizza boxes featuring A&E’s Growing Up Gotti. The network uses racier magazines such as Maxim, Stuff and Playboy and sponsors more-alternative events, including Ozzfest, which featured a performance by A&E star Criss Angel.

How can the broadcast networks compete in the programming/marketing wars? They must stop acting like they are in a three- or four-team race and begin considering themselves as manufacturers with products that must sink or swim on their own merits.

It begins with the programming. Broadcast networks must take greater risks. They must take the fundamental leap from letting the network brand the shows to letting the shows brand the network. Sometimes you get the feeling the networks live in fear of losing their biggest advertisers. But sooner or later, even the most conservative advertisers must follow where the viewers go.