It’s Time for a Back-up Plan

writers-strike.jpgThe WGA writer strike ended its first week with no signs of concession, leaving marketers wondering: How will this affect television viewing habits and their primary medium for reaching the masses?

In a Reuters article published Nov. 11, “Writers strike could mean big changes in advertising,” Lisa Herdman, vice president of network programming at RPA said, “I don’t know how long it will take, but viewers will start to go to other places, and we as advertisers have to follow them…Whether we will go back to TV is another question altogether.”

Network television is the long time media favorite for reaching the masses, but if television as we know it is forced into full-time reruns and reality programming, will its already fickle audience stick around?

In the Reuters piece, Jack Myers, television industry vet and editor of JackMyers.com said, “The fact that so many new prime-time shows are struggling to find an audience, and now you’re going to take them off the air for who-knows-how-long, the odds are that even the audiences they generated for the last several weeks are just not going to come back.”

Daily Variety’s article, “Late night tout is out,” reports that nearly eight percent of the television audience vanished during the five-month 1988 writers strike, never to return. The article also says that 2007 fall television viewership is down.
Without the late night talk shows the studio publicity departments have lost a primary media outlet for stars to talk up their latest movies. Currently all five shows are on hiatus. Staff at “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” were given two weeks notice of pending layoffs. These shows are a key ingredient to marketing films as stars are given the opportunity to engage the viewers. The article says, “So there were fewer opportunities for the all-star Cruise-Redford-Streep team to persuade the public that “Lions for Lambs,” which opened Nov. 9, is as engaging as it is cerebral. Should the strike last, Tom Hanks won’t have as many outlets to explain to filmgoers why they should become emotionally involved in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” yet another war film.”

Hollywood movies are not the only marketers that use late night talk shows to engage audiences, politicians, musicians and charity organizations also leverage this platform.

Daily Variety’s, “Networks go to backup plan,” published on Nov. 9 reports, “…a few months ago, as a strike became more and more likely, pilot development kicked into overdrive. Nets started handing out put pilot commitments, and even series orders, like they were candy.” Fortunately, there are lots of scripts ready for production and in a worst-case scenario, the studios can re-shoot old television series, but will the television audience still be around to watch?

The other less-talked about challenge is the June 30 expiration date on both the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild contracts, so even though scripts are in the bag, there may not be enough time to shoot them all before a next round of strikes hit and there are no thespians, directors or crews to work the shoots.

With the networks and studios now implementing their “back-up plans” marketers are still left bearing the risk of underperforming television buys. When a show underperforms, networks generally offer make-goods to cover the deficit and make a media buy whole in terms of audience reach, but what if those underperforming shows are only followed by more underperforming or worse, lackluster shows? Combine this with the fact that most networks boasted increased advertising rates during the 2007 upfront season and that 2008 is an election year and we may see the makings for the perfect marketing storm. How? If ad rates are up, then marketers are paying more per ad, thus increasing their per unit risk, politicians are known for paying extremely high rates to ensure premium ad placement, further driving up rates and marketers are faced with the possibility of lackluster television programming.

 If it is time to hedge bets in the marketing world, then now is a great time to start seeking out alternate advertising avenues to television, and by that I do not simply mean reallocating ABC’s network television commitments to ABC.com. That is ridiculous because theoretically marketers are reaching the same audience. Rather, shave some money off of the overall ABC commitment to try out different, measurable outlets. For example, the ad networks, but not just any ad network, use the one or few that make the most sense for the brand.

Marketers need to get comfortable with the long tail. Just like cable television in the early 1980s, the Web’s vast array of channels offer marketers endless opportunities to engage with consumers, via DIY videos to World of Warcraft cheats to user-generated content. There are some far reaching corners of the Web that when aggregated deliver a diverse, yet untouched audience. Many ad networks, SpotXchange included, do a great job of making those corners of cyber space readily and easily accessible. Keep in mind that not every guy is an NFL fan and not every little girl likes Hannah Montana, so don’t be afraid to engage the audience that veers away from the mainstream.

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