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Trump, Hurricanes, Football, and Peak TV Force Networks To Rethink How They Promote Fall Lineups

To cut through the clutter, networks are increasingly relying on fans to do the heavy lifting — by sharing campaigns on social media; ABC and CBS even recently painted the same L.A. wall for Instagram-friendly murals.

(l-r): James Frain; Doug Jones; Sonequa Martin-Green during the ÒStar Trek: DiscoveryÓ Gallery Takeover at Comic-Con 2017, held in San Diego, Ca. Photo Cr: Francis Specker© 2017 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

“Star Trek: Discovery” stars James Frain, Doug Jones, and Sonequa Martin-Green at San Diego Comic-Con


A year ago, the broadcast networks were forced to promote their fall TV lineups during the height of the election, as panicked audiences were instead glued to the real-life presidential derby playing out on their screens. But a year later, the networks face even bigger distractions.

A bevy of late-summer mega-hurricanes hit portions of Texas and Florida hard, with potentially more on the way, and Americans in several major markets (including Houston and Miami) rightfully have bigger concerns right now than what new medical dramas are coming to television.

But the real storm threatening the fall TV launch, yet again, is Hurricane Trump. At Sunday night’s Emmy Awards, host Stephen Colbert pointed out that “the biggest TV star of the last year is Donald Trump.” And as the networks attempt to launch their new fall lineups, they’re having to break through the clutter of a real-life White House shitshow that didn’t take the summer off.

If that’s not enough, Congress is attempting to force through another repeal of affordable healthcare this week, and tensions with North Korea are at an all time high while the president threatens to destroy America in an address at the United Nations. It’s hard to think about “Young Sheldon” at times like these.

Now, for good measure, factor in the return of football (and the controversies consuming that sport), the non-stop parade of new series on cable and streaming, and platforms like Facebook flooding devices with more content than humanly possible to consume.

“Distractions will be the new norm,” said CBS marketing president George Schweitzer. “We just have to live within this world. This is survival of the fittest in the entertainment marketing business. You have 20 new shows on five networks plus whatever there is on streaming and music and books. Everyone’s competing for leisure time attention. Bring it on. We understand, we deal with the reality.”

With audiences waiting until the last minute to make their programming choices, networks are now marketing their shows much closer to air. And now that viewers can stream a show’s debut weeks after launch, ABC Entertainment marketing executive vice president Rebecca Daugherty said promotion priorities have shifted toward keeping the message alive much longer.

“We all know people are not necessarily coming in on the premiere,” she said. “They’re watching three, four, five weeks afterward. Some people wait to hear what others have to say. So we want to make sure we’re reaching people even after show’s premiere. The biggest difference is we have bigger sustaining campaigns these days than we used to. You’ll be seeing paid media for some shows out there for weeks past the day of premiere.”

Even episodic promos may be changing, as the networks realize that viewers aren’t all watching at the same time. “Are you spoiling an episode for somebody if they’re not on schedule with you?” Daugherty asks. “[We’re] perhaps moving to more broad series sells. These are all discussions we’re having internally.”

Added Fox TV Group chief marketing officer Shannon Ryan: “Peak TV has basically resulted in the most competitive time in the history of the business and fall launch has become the television equivalent of ‘Black Friday.’ Campaigns today need to span all types of media to give shows the best opportunity to break out.”

Networks are at a bit of a marketing disadvantage vs. their streaming counterparts, who can use complicated algorithms to push programming to viewers who might be more apt to watch. But as they continue to see more viewership via on-demand or their own digital sites’ streaming players, even the traditional broadcast networks are awash in more data.

“The tool box has gotten a lot sharper,” Schweitzer said. “There’s a lot more focus on a lot more data now. Our advertisers have been using it on purchasing for years, and now we’re into it with set-top box data. It’s data we purchase, or see through interactive. We know more now about viewer behavior.”

The core marketing tool is still the on-air promo, which the networks will run on their own air, on cable networks and on digital platforms. CBS, for example, has been pushing new comedy “Young Sheldon” hard during repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” on TBS, and its freshman action dramas “SEAL Team” and “S.W.A.T.” during repeats of procedural dramas on TNT and USA.

Outdoor ads remain important, although the networks have started putting less information on billboards. Gone is specific tune-in information (time and date), a recognition that viewers will find the show when and how they want to watch it.

“You gotta get their attention in two seconds, and you can’t do that with stacks of information,” Schweitzer said. “Bus stops, billboards, sides of trains and buses, they’re awareness building.”

Networks are also continuing to abandon print for digital, which is more effective to promote a show on its airdate. “By that time, people have seen some of your creative,” Daugherty said. “We want to make sure they remember it’s on tonight to get them to remember to tune in that day.”

“Me, Myself and I” and “The Mayor” murals on Melrose


And then there’s perhaps the fastest growing portion of marketing TV: social. Coincidentally, both CBS and ABC even used the same wall in L.A.’s Melrose neighborhood to paint murals for new shows — in order to start showing up on users’ Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter posts. (CBS’ “Me, Myself and I” and ABC’s “The Mayor” took turns, located across the street from Paul Smith boutique’s famed — and heavily Instagrammed — “pink wall.”)

In the old days, “word of mouth” was important, but hard to create — or measure. Now, in the Golden Age of Social Media, networks are able to supplement their marketing budgets by depending on the public to do some of their heavy lifting. Fox, for example, just sealed a deal with Twitter to promote “Empire” via a weekly pre-show and is also streaming episodes of “Ghosted” and “The Mick” on the service, in hopes that fans will share with others.

Here are a few other stunts the networks tried out this fall to spread the word about their new fall wares:

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