Switching Channels: Branding Network TV in an Era of Mass-less Media (Part Two)

Yesterday, we ran the first part of an essay written by Sloan MBA candidate Eleanor Baird about the current fate and future branding of network television. Baird’s work calls attention to shifts in the ways that networks measure their audiences, shifts which are going to be played out in dramatic ways as the networks launch their new season this fall. A team of MIT students — graduate and undergraduate — will be monitoring closely the week by week fluctuations in viewership figures and the ways that the networks are adjusting their programming strategies and branding practices in response. Here’s the description of the course, which would be open to students from MIT, Harvard, or Wellesley, thanks to our various exchange programs. I hope to report on some of their findings here throughout the term.

Quantitative Research: Case Studies in the Fall 2007 Television Ecosystem

Alex Chisholm and Stacey Lynn Schulman

As creative development and business models change for television and cable networks making the transition from broadcasting to a mass market to immersing viewers in content across digital platforms, new opportunities to engage audiences in more meaningful ways are emerging as quickly as the underlying businesses that support production and distribution are outgrowing traditional valuation metrics and advertising currencies. There is a significant disconnect between what we know and can price versus what we’re learning and where businesses are headed in the years to come.

Using the Fall 2007 television season as a basis for discussion and exploration, this seminar and lab course are designed to introduce students to the research metrics and business issues associated with broadcast and cable television, as well is with a variety of digital content extensions across web, mobile, and other platforms, all intended to create additional revenue streams while engaging audiences. In the lab, students will apply their learning to an analysis and revenue forecasting exercise for the television season as it unfolds in real time. The goal of the course will be to enable students to explore new ways of thinking quantitatively as we attempt to bridge the gap that currently exists between the known and unknown.

Our aim will be to begin the course with summaries of the networks’ annual “upfront” presentations and programming strategies, immersing students in the creative and strategic pitches of the four major networks and explaining the corresponding business/programming rationale behind the new fall TV season. Then, in subsequent weeks, students will be introduced and become fluent in the mechanics and intricacies of rating points, Nielsen ratings, and other data to help understand the programming and business (e.g., marketing, advertising pricing inventories, sweeps strategies and case students, etc.) of the season as it progresses through the fall. Students will also be introduced to emerging strategies and tools to analyze “buzz” and other online behaviors — such as online video viewing, iTunes purchases, etc. — that now enable networks to better understand the “total” audience for their shows. While the course will focus on quantitative research methods and analysis, connections will be made to some new qualitative strategies and methods. Guest speakers from the major television networks, production companies, and advertising agencies will complement seminar discussions and readings.

As part of the weekly lab, students will work in teams representing the major television networks to “forecast” what the networks might and should do to revise their programming strategies and re-price their advertising inventories over the course of the fall season. The lab is supplemented by an online discussion/wiki where student teams will collaborate and collect data.

Stacey Lynn Schulman is CEO, Chief Insight Officer of Hi: Human Insight, a media consultancy practice that specializes in unearthing insights that drive better connections between consumers and content. Through January 2007, Ms. Schulman was the president of The Interpublic Group of Co.’s fully-dedicated Consumer Experience Practice, which advised marketers on how to effectively connect with consumers in the evolving media landscape. Widely respected in the industry, she is an award-winning professional who is routinely quoted in trade and consumer media outlets, including appearances on CNN, CNBC and FOX News Channel to discuss media trends.

Alex Chisholm is founder of [ICE]^3 Studios, a media research and development consultancy that creates transmedia entertainment and educational properties, and is currently developing several projects with NBC News, NBC Olympics-Beijing 2008, and The Children’s Hospital Trust. Over the past seven years, he has collaborated on research, product, and program development with Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Interpublic Group, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, Children’s Hospital Boston, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Now for Part Two of Baird’s essay:

Switching Channels: Branding Network TV in an Era of Mass-less Media

by Eleanor Baird

Digital downstream

Even if audiences are not planning to sit in front of a network television affiliate for hours on end, networks hope, as they probably always have, that the consumer will be at least be engaged with the some of the content and keep coming back for more. The interactive, on-demand nature of the Internet seems to make it a natural medium for audience engagement for a consumer who could access the content from a wide variety of channels at a variety of times. Network executives and programmers hope that enhanced and more interactive experiences through the “ancillary channel” of the Internet will increase retention, engagement and, time spent viewing the show and related content and ultimately, revenue going back to the original program source. With a network branded site, this strategy is another opportunity to have consumers interact with the meta brand

Caldwell argues that television styled itself a “pull” medium, while bidding to make the Internet a “viable ‘push’ medium” . The relationship between television and Internet may seem natural and complimentary in this way, but it is problematic in others, requiring the interaction of content created by a few and consumed by many to adapt to a medium where greater participation in consumption and production of the content and flow are the norm. Moreover, this relationship has implications for a network trying to maintain a clear brand identity in an environment where users expect to be able to repurpose content in ways that the producers may never have intended. In contrast to television, this medium gives the network far less control of the image of both the sub-brand (the content) but also the meta brand, then context in which the sub-brand is experienced (the network).

So, although consumption of digital content may engage the viewer more, there is no guarantee, given the nature of the technology and the norms surrounding it, that the engagement will be with the network brand, the show’s sub-brand, a combination of the two, or other factors entirely. That said, a recent study suggest that, if presented through a number of media channels, network affiliation awareness seems to grow stronger, echoing multiple studies on marketing messages and consumer retention.

Although there is certainly potential for branding and revenue generation online, interactivity is not the silver bullet that will save the networks from a consumer standpoint either. Various companies have tried to launch costly interactive television initiatives since the 1970s, all of which failed because they overestimated the audience interest in the service.

The public’s interest in interactivity does not seem to be much better for network websites. Even though the vast majority of homes have a television and Internet penetration in U.S. households is quite high, there are estimates that as little as 5% of broadcast networks’ viewers actually watch streaming video, in contrast to the 15% of cable channel viewers who do. A recent study of cable network website users found that they enjoyed using the website, but did not see it as the “Internet brand of the network” or as a “functional alternative to television”. In fact, the usage of the cable television websites was heavily dependent on if they had been mentioned on air – a factor that accounted for about two thirds of visitors – and, not surprisingly, the popularity of a cable network’s website mirrors the popularity of the network’s broadcasts.

This raises the question of the utility of focusing branding efforts on these channels at all. If the users are highly engaged “content junkies” who usually learn about the site through watching television anyway, is network brand development online a worthwhile area to explore?


Re-run or Pitch: Anything new?

One could argue that the current challenges facing the networks are nothing new. Viewership and ratings of network television have been in decline since the introduction of cable television channels and the VCR; network primetime share of the TV audience Network prime time viewing shares have dropped from over 90% in 1979 to about 50% in 1998, the same year the four networks’ season rating slipped to 36%. The growing ubiquity of advertising in everyday western life and the issues that raises first drew comment in the mid-1800s, and many of the “new” advertising ideas, from the single sponsor to the commercial-program integration were used in TV’s earlier days. Hand wringing about the propensity of consumers to skip advertisements on television began as early as the 1950s and 1960s when articles appeared in the popular press on how to “zap” commercials with a remote.

Going with the flow

If we take the opposite view, that these changes are significant and, as some have argued, we are living in a “post-network” or possibly even “post-television” era , where traditional channels will become obsolete and consumers will be left to their own devices in selecting the content they want to view. Although sensational and interesting to contemplate, these scenarios would not be consistent with the evolution of media where, as Henry Jenkins argues, “once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within a larger system of communication options”. This outlook would also be inconsistent with the current and historical behaviors of “mass” audiences who have been known to vary widely in their adoption of new technology and consumption habits, as we have seen.

If the latter case is true, how can television, and more specifically the networks, adapt to a brave new world that includes not only cable, and DVRs but digital distribution channels and an audience that wants more and more control over what it watches and when. If content is indeed king, where do broadcast networks fit in, and how do they keep their advertisers happy and revenue streams flowing?

The answer seems to be in stealthy advertising and broad diversification. John Caldwell argues that television is going through a rhetorical shift that directly reflects the industrial context and reality in which producers and distributors now find themselves. Productions are “content”, not “programs”, that media companies are now “repurpose[ing] and “migrating” to “platform[s]”. As Sumner Redstone, Chairman of Viacom, a media conglomerate explained the company’s philosophy in 2004: “What advertisers buy is platforms to get their brand promoted, and we’ve got four platforms for them [broadcast TV, cable TV, billboards, and radio]…[w]e’re everywhere, because in this day and age you have to be where the advertisers need to be.”

Unfortunately for the broadcast networks, the shocks of industry deregulation in the 1980s allowed “emerging media conglomerate were reaping the benefits of vertical integration in the cable landscape, but the broadcast networks were precluded from doing the same thing.” When regulations changed again in the mid-1990s, a there was a “phase of frenzied merger and acquisitions activity characterized by an unprecedented commitment to vertical integration and ‘synergy'” for broadcast networks, including extensive re-branding campaigns when the quality and familiarity message did not seem to help get an audience.

The new multi-platform, on-demand universe of repurposed channels and content disrupts Raymond William’s concept that flow, sequences of items in a programming lineup, is a defining characteristic of television as a medium. Without the ability to control flow, broadcast networks – lacking the strong viewer identification and brand strength common to cable – seem to be in danger of loosing relevance as a medium or distribution channel and moving further and further into content production and promotion of engagement with a stable of content sub-brands.

Much has been written about brand extension and dilution. Most relevant for networks, however, are the risks and benefits associated with having a strong meta brand. Consumers like consistency and predictability. The more consistent, predictable and good a sub-brand, the more it would benefit from a strong meta-brand, and vice versa. If the meta-brand is weak, there is much more latitude to experiment, but no chance to benefit from a strong meta brand and market reputation for a certain competency or style. One 1993 study found that “when a firm systematically introduces brand extensions consistent with a broader, more superordinate product category, it not only modifies the brand’s core business definition but also enhances the brand’s ability to accommodated more and diverse extensions.” Therefore, a strong network brand could actually help a broadcaster expand and diversify its offerings and protect it from some of the risk associated with new shows in an inherently risky industry.

As we have seen, advertising revenue and audiences have fallen, despite the desire to consume network television programming. New technologies for circumventing the push towards traditional network television “appointment viewing” are clearly causing some loss of revenue. However, even though lost revenue from piracy and illegal downloads online is difficult to estimate, these new technologies do not seem to have as great an impact on the networks as the advent of cable, still their main competitor, or industry consolidation in the 1990s.

If this is indeed the case, this moment in time may be a key opportunity for networks to establish themselves as meta brands and ensure that viewers identify with the channel and the product before cultural practice aligns itself more with the available technology.

Hustle and Flow – Network branding analysis

As the stage has now been set, and the larger issues in network branding addressed, this part of the paper will be devoted to an analysis of branding practices of the four U.S. networks from the mid-nineties until the 2007 upfront presentations.

Essentially, there are two models of network branding in use by these four players: the flow, or push, method and the hustle, or pull, method.

The first method of network branding, used by ABC, and NBC and FOX to a lesser extent, is what I would call the flow model. It relies on the traditional channel, the broadcast network to push content to the viewer, but uses a branded online presence as a secondary opportunity to engage the viewer in the content, but with the ongoing presence of the network brand in the virtual space. This approach is not about holding back content, but retaining control over how it is accessed by users outside of the television medium.

TV Week reports that ABC and NBC have worked aggressively to drive visits to their branded websites, largely by providing high volumes of content quickly in a single place. From September 2006 through February 2007, ABC.com and NBC.com were almost tied in first place with about 9 million unique visitors each per month, trailed by CBS.com with 5.5 and Fox.com with just 3.7 million, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. NBC and FOX have announced that they will collaborate to launch a yet unnamed content delivery site this year.

Where the three networks diverge is in their emphasis on event programming versus branding campaigns to encourage “appointment viewing”. For example, FOX has relied on long-running programs American Idol to fuel some of its rating power. A true event program, Idol has been able to command huge premiums on advertising time for six seasons. FOX has released its content gradually relative to competitors, and has fewer ‘high concept” programs like Heroes or Lost, which tend to drive online ratings by virtue of their complex story lines and serial narratives that prompt viewers to seek out information outside of their regular TV viewing time. FOX is the top ranked network in the lucrative 18-49 demographic, with a brand that has been described by one executive in as “noisy, inventive, [and] talk[s] with viewers not at them”, which “transferred into Fox’s new on-air look, characterized by bold type, kinetic footage and distinctive color palette.”

ABC and NBC have also both created flow-based marketing campaigns to brand their content on television.

Perhaps the more well known was NBC’s “Must-See TV” campaign that made the network’s Thursday “clearly the most watched and most profitable night in network television during the 10-year use of the line”. It was flow-based because it promoted a sequence of shows rather than a single piece of content as a weekly event. This enabled the network to leverage its own meta brand and program in a rerun and sometimes new or weaker shows with the support of proven hits.

Nancy San Martin also argued that the line-up had an internal logic, that “naturalizes and reinforces a traditional narrative order- providing a readily discernible beginning, middle and end” and thus encouraged viewers to stay tuned for the entire programming set. In the midst of the “Must-See-TV” era, the network launched the NBC-2000 campaign to bring errant affiliates, and their viewers, into the fold by presenting the organization as one big family. Although the network is lagging in the ratings, Mike Pilot, President of Ad Sales, recently said in an interview that “[y]ou have to believe in our heritage [brand] and that programming success is cyclical and we’ll get back to a great place”, adding that the Thursday night slot was (still) the one they would focus on. The network, perhaps to hedge against its aforementioned DVR woes, has invested in both TiVo and ReplayTV.

ABC has employed a similar logic to promoting its whole lineup, although it takes a much broader, less time-dependent approach and uses themes that are more abstract and popular music to create a meta brand. The “Yellow” campaign to promote the network’s entire fall lineup several years ago, using the color, a set of clever taglines and a popular coldplay song to promote itself, the channel, as a sense of irony and ultimately a fun destination rather than just a position on the dial. This season, the network has been promoting their lineup under the title “One”, using a Mary J. Blige song by the same name in spots, this time emphasizing “[t]he idea…that our shows bring people together, so the network brings people together.” Mentions were made in the press of ABC’s core demographics in articles about the 2007 upfront presentations, with one writer at Variety referring to them as “the most upscale-skewing of all broadcasters” and a writer for the LA Times blog referring to ABC’s colorful and female skewing brand .

If the “flow” approach employed by ABC, NBC and FOX is a push strategy that involves a branded digital content experience, a branded look and feel and an emphasis on events or flow programming, the “hustle” approach of CBS is almost the opposite. Unlike the other three networks, CBS has not had a recent clear brand-building campaign for its flow on the air or huge content successes. What is interesting about CBS, and why I called this the “hustle” model, is that it has been relatively aggressive in shopping out its content using a much more scattershot approach and without the anchoring site employed by ABC and NBC.

Whereas ABC and NBC have very strongly network branded sites to distribute its content for free online, CBS has taken a much different, two pronged approach more geared to distributing pieces of content along the lines of Bernard Miége’s publishing model of cultural production, not Williams’ concept of flow.

CBS does manage a content site where full episodes can be viewed free, but the site, Innertube, makes only passing reference to the network. The conundrum was well-described by brandchannel.com: ” [w]hile the official Innertube URL is filed under the CBS brand (cbs.com/innertube) rather than its own URL (like cbsinnertube.com), the rest of the site experience actually promotes Innertube as the primary brand, with the CBS parent brand having more of a secondary role.” Meanwhile, CBS recently announced a series of agreements to distribute its programming online with portals like MSN and AOL; it was also the first network to sign with the Internet TV site Joost, and is in talks with the NBC-FOX content distribution site. This scope would give CBS more internet distribution partners than any other major media company , yet the exact benefits of this strategy are still unclear, beyond its content becoming a semi-ubiquitous feature of legal video viewing sites.

CBS also garnered a great deal of attention at this year’s upfront presentation from bloggers in particular when it announced that the complexly-plotted show Jericho was to be replaced with a reality program called 40 Kids. Although the network was almost universally maligned for taking this step, given its limited web presence as a content provider online, it may not be able to support a more complexly plotted show like this and fully engage the audience. CBS’ model seems to be about producing content that is good for television but with limited potential for brand extension online (like CSI) , and capitalizing on it relatively quickly with on air ad revenues and multiple deals with third party content sites.

Conclusion: Three questions revisited

At the beginning of this essay, I posed three questions: is the primary role for a broadcast network as a content producer or advertising aggregation channel, if the consumer’s relationship to the content is stronger than their relationship to the channel, and if a network can be branded, how can it be done successfully. I would like to conclude by attempting to answer each of these.

On the first question, a network can (and they are) both, but fundamentally a network is a communication mechanism, a mass medium. Advertising aggregation is the motor that runs both the production and broadcasting machines. Even if media is now “mass-less”, the networks are the closest thing we now have to a common media experience across the United States, and maintaining that broad, general reach is its raison d’etre. Perhaps it is not the content but the selection and programming of content that networks can market and sell to advertisers.

On the second question, I would argue that consumers currently have a stronger relationship overall with network content than the network channel, but it does not have to be that way. I would point to the BBC, PBS, CityTv in Canada, and the Discovery Channel as examples of networks (albeit some on cable) that have managed to create a distinctive relationship with the people that watch them through advocacy, higher perceived quality, local involvement, and/or merchandizing and retail.

Both of these questions lead, of course into the final question: can and should a network be branded and if so, how? Based on the research, I believe that the first two parts of the answer are yes it can and yes it should. Developing a clear identity and meta-brand has several important advantages in today’s market. It helps define the audience for advertisers, which helps bring in revenue, as well as setting the stage for developing a set of clear marketing messages to draw those viewers to a variety of media properties where they can engage with both the network meta brand and the content sub-brand. It also helps set the stage for loyal viewership that will bear with the network while it experiments with the occasional incongruent sub-brand to look for new revenue opportunities. True, the networks need to stay national, but that is not to say that they could not pursue a certain niche with broad appeal, somewhat like FOX’s emphasis on reality programming.

The final question of how, is somewhat more difficult to answer. I would argue that, in the case of television networks, DVRs and content online are important considerations but that the vast majority of people gravitate back, or can be convinced to gravitate back to, live broadcast TV. True, the Nielsen ratings can be changed, but less ambiguity will help to capture more advertisers. The live broadcast TV “product” should be the core of any successful TV branding, not content or websites. In my mind, the flow strategy still works best; television is a live, audio and visual community experience that the web or DVR cannot duplicate, and networks offer familiarity and editorial know-how in the clutter of the “mass media” – even if it is not so “mass” anymore.

References

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A native of Toronto, Canada, Eleanor Baird is entering her second year as an MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Before coming to Boston, Eleanor worked in media relations, consulting, and strategic planning in the public and private sectors. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto, where she specialized in Political Science and

History. This summer, Eleanor will be an intern with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Media Strategies department in Washington, DC.

Comments

  1. Scott Ellington says:

    Speaking as a recovering television junky, I think this article describes a disaffection that began for me in 1963 when the narrator said,

    “We now return control of your television set to you.”

    We’d only had the set for a few years, and my dependency was full-blown, but the seed was planted.

    Fast-forward to 1997, when I came upon Buffy the Vampire Slayer late, but permanently. Now, if I wear a brand it’s Mutant Enemy: Because entertainment is about content and storytelling, not the ulterior motives of advertisers, their overpaid agents, nor (reality tv) amateur hour.

    The networks and their sponsors don’t particularly matter to me, but I follow the writers and producers I discovered in the ranks of Mutant Enemy Productions pretty religously, by name.

    This tendency has generalized to other writers and executive producers like David Milch, David Chase and Aaron Sorkin, along with a host of others. There is Whedon-product I can enjoy via iTunes that’s completely devoid of commercial interruption nor the touch of a remote control for upwards of 56 hours at a single stretch.

    Where I grew up, “hustle” was something shamelessly done to suckers. The battle of The Networks stars executives and advertisers.

    They Lost.

  2. Hi Henry,

    Very interesting read, also check out our service Scope, we provide metrics to Advertisers, Television Networks and Publishers for online digital media consumption. You can reach it at http://divinityMetrics.com

    Cheers.

    Vishal