Online advertising dollars are on the rise, and ironically it's a competing media channel contributing to this re-birth. Television networks are now embracing online and leveraging the medium to promote their primetime gems.
In recent weeks, it has been difficult to avoid the onslaught of tune-in ads online. Networks like NBC have been promoting new shows "My Name is Earl" and "Surface" on the front page of Yahoo!. The WB continues to support its younger skewing shows via strategically targeted placements on AOL Instant Messenger, an ideal environment to reach the elusive teen audience.
With the help of video-enabled rich media, networks have the ability to distribute short highlights within the actual creative, making it that much easier to give the viewers a taste for the program. This is all solid evidence that networks now realize that their audiences are online more often, and in many instances online while they're watching TV.
Because networks can no longer rely exclusively on a mass audience gravitating to the appointment-based primetime television, we're seeing more encore airings, on air as well as now on broadband video. UPN made headlines when it showcased its highly anticipated hit "Everybody Hates Chris" via Google Video. NBC tapped into the increasingly popular community site, MySpace, to help promote "The Office" last year. This is simply about giving the audience what it wants, when it wants it, and it wants it. If it means taste testing a new show (commercial free) via online video to drive initial interest in the program, then so be it.
The Reality TV maven with the Midas touch, Mark Burnett, has turned to online as an audience-retention tool, striking deals with Yahoo! to extend "The Apprentice" franchise, and with MSN to promote "Rock Star INXS." This strategy feeds the audience's appetite for bonus content and allows the show to keep the viewer engaged from episode to episode.
Burnett's decision to have the official online destinations for these shows reside within top portals makes complete sense. The portals offer the commanding reach and advertiser-friendly environment that a typical network website has a tough time competing with. An MSN or Yahoo! can also take advantage of communication services like instant messaging to establish that one-to-one connection to further engage the viewer. Yahoo! offers an "Apprentice" branded IMVironment, for example, where fans can interact with a virtual Donald, or join the Apprentice Fantasy Game and pick which contestant will be the next to be voted off. Again -- an excellent way to keep the show top of mind and maintain that water cooler effect all week long.
MTV Networks has also done a phenomenal job of developing exclusive programming specifically geared for the MTV Overdrive and VH1 VSpot broadband offerings. When viewers want more of their favorite shows like "Laguna Beach" and "The Real World" they can tune in to the "After Shows" for behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast members. What I especially like about these segments is that MTV does not compromise production value simply because the shows are being produced for broadband. This content looks and feels like something you would watch on MTV or VH1, and offers a seamless experience for both the viewer and the advertiser.
Once viewers get to a show's website, networks and producers may now consider stealing a play from Amazon's playbook: "Viewers who liked Show A, also like this Show B". Setting up a website to better cross promote shows will result in greater network loyalty both online and offline.
But when the hoopla of the new star-studded lineups begins to subside, and shows start falling off the schedule, what then? For starters, networks should consider harnessing online to resuscitate shows that did not generate stellar ratings out of the gate but have a following. Case in point: "Arrested Development." When Fox halted production on the second season of "Arrested Development" after just 18 episodes, fans of the Fox show turned to blogs to demand that their show not be pulled. At one critical point, in an attempt to raise support for a third season, the "Arrested Development" website put up a "Get Arrested Loyalty Oath" where people could submit their pledges. To date, more than 110,000 loyal viewers (and counting) have pledged their allegiance to the show. Not only did the efforts of this small, but loyal audience revive the show, they also helped raise ratings. Rather than wait until a show is at the brink of cancellation, networks and producers should be proactive and look to harness the power of these loyal online communities to support their shows throughout their lifecycle.
As networks continue to juggle schedules -- changing nights and mixing up program lead-in's -- why not consider moving some of the lower rated shows to broadband video? If additional episodes have been produced and digital distribution rights have been secured, it would seem logical (and smart) for a network to go online to give the show extended life. Should the show do well on broadband, then consider re-launching it on-air. I see broadband video as a virtual time slot, distributed across a different platform. Networks will benefit (and in fact already have) if they embrace it.
So as media viewing patterns and technologies continue to converge, so do programming strategies. With so many new shows, and more channels for viewers to navigate, the environment is ripe for change and leadership. And networks are well-positioned to leverage the power of online media to zone in on their target audience to keep viewers tuning in season after season.
If only online media was around when I wanted "21 Jump Street" back on their air.
James Kiernan is an associate director for MediaVest, specializing in digital media and emerging media platforms. Kiernan came to MediaVest in June '04 to contribute his expertise to the P&G account. Prior to joining MediaVest, Kiernan had helped to grow the digital media departments for FCBi and prior to that, OgilvyOne. He is a contributing writer for a number of trade publications including iMedia Connection, E-Commerce Times and Media Life Magazine. In June 2003, Media Magazine recognized Kiernan as one of the industry's Top Rising Stars.