Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tale of two ad campaigns

[I've been meaning to write more about the business approaches of terrestrial superstations for a while now though I didn't mean to write quite so much -- damned thing got away from me.]

Back in my college teaching days, I produced and edited some videos to accompany an algebra book. They were terrible, crime-against-humanity bad, but they paid off the remainder of my car loan and, along with a few other projects, they gave me a lifelong appreciation of how much or how little work goes into what you see on TV.

Of course, most of my projects were easy to put together, just cut from the instructor to the steps of the problem. There was seldom much doubt about what shot to use or which one went where. The hard part comes when you have hours of footage and you have to decide which shots to use and which order to put them in.

This under-the-hood perspective throws an interesting light on the difference between the promos of Weigel Broadcasting's METV and those of NBCUniversal's COZITV and the way those promos reflect the strengths of the first company and the weaknesses of the second.

METV specializes in promos that link clips from different shows together either stylistically, thematically or to form a narrative. In order to do this you can spend a tremendous number of man hours combing through different shows looking to find something useful or you can find people with extensive knowledge of the shows in question and spend merely a large number of man hours.

The thing that jumps out at me about there promos (beyond the sheer number, most apparently done by the prolific Joe Dale) is the aptness of the clips. Consider this ad built around the two definitive Bob Newhart bits, the therapy session and the phone call (Here's the backstory). Each clip has to work on two levels, flowing smoothly into the gag while promoting the brand.

(On a strictly technical grounds, the sound editing is also quite good. I count audio from six different sources recorded in three different decades and extensively resequenced. This was not an easy mix.)

I also liked the sound editing on this one.

This is a good time to step back and make a point about marketing. Advertisements have got to work with a company's brand. In the case of METV, this means presenting the channel as sort of a TCM for television lovers, a place with both a high variety of titles (over fifty a week) and a high number of well-remembered shows. This promo emphasizes the variety.

(also a lot of nice editing here)

The other side of the brand is the appeal to fans and connoisseurs. Many of the ads work best if you know the context of the clips.

(God, Mumy was creepy)

And I'm not sure the following works at all if you don't know the twists being spoiled.

At the risk of being repetitive, hard core fans are the target audience and the promos do a beautiful job playing to them. For example, if you were to ask fans of the Mary Tyler Moore Show to list favorite Sue Ann moments, most of them would be represented here:

This also brings up one final point. METV faces an interesting branding challenge. One of their main selling points is variety, expressed in the number of shows aired a week, the frequent changes in line-up and the special features like the Sunday Showcase, a themed three hour block that often features shows not currently on the schedule. For reasons far to complex to go into now, both research and experience have shown that too much choice can actually push customers away while brand identity is built on repetition. In other words, variety is good but you can't build you ad campaign around it.

If you'll forgive the mixed metaphor, METV addresses this by marketing certain shows as anchors and flagships. Anchors are relatively permanent fixtures in the line-up (Rawhide will come and go; Gunsmoke will always be there). They are also shows you would expect to see on a classic TV channel, Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Rockford, Columbo, I Love Lucy, and the like.

The flagships are the face of the channel. They run in prime time. They are promoted with elaborate ads...

...some featuring interviews and short sketches with the original stars.

(Asner's picture is a nice touch)

The point is to find shows that are well known and well remembered and are associated with the qualities you want people to associate with your brand. The three shows Weigel chose, Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart, were almost ideal for this purpose.

Here's Carl Reiner's assessment of one of these promos:

I apologize for going through this at such length but there's more to this story than just a TV channel with a knack for cutting clever spots. Weigel is an independent broadcasting company that is succeeding because it has a smart strategy, a superior product and a deep understanding of and respect for its viewers, but that success is only possible because of the way digital broadcasting opened up the market.

One of the many reasons to object to the current push to kill over-the-air television is that it further protects huge media companies like Disney and Viacom from healthy competition. To see just how bloated some of those behemoths can be, take a look at NBCUniversal's recently launch terrestrial superstation, CoziTV. The contrast is telling.

Weigel is a story of a small, nimble company doing a lot with a little. COZITV is a story of a huge, slow-moving company doing a little with a lot.

COZI often has a terribly cheap feel, with annoying infomercials and some of the worst quality prints of public domain shows that I've ever seen broadcast, but if you look closely you'll realize that much of the programming is surprisingly expensive. They air multiple original reality shows. Programs like Magnum are still reasonably popular (and thus not in the bargain bin). Many of the movies shown (like Soderbergh's Out of Sight, Far from Heaven and the remake of the Producers) still fall in the 'major motion picture' category. Their "I Love the Eighties" inspired debut special actually featured fairly well-established comics (including one who did frequent bits on Best Week Ever).

But for all that, the on-air promotions are stunningly ineffective, having all the telltale signs of executives so clueless they don't even know they're clueless. There is no indication that anyone involved thought about what the brand should be or how to build it or who the target audience is supposed to be.

Unlike METV and its constant stream of promos, COZI spent a lot on a few spots that left all of their movies and much of their series line-up unpromoted. Furthermore, the choices of what gets covered are often inexplicable. For example, the Monday night prime time line up consists of George Peppard in Banacek and Rock Hudson in McMillan and Wife. Banacek is one of their most heavily promoted shows; McMillan appears to have no coverage whatsoever. We could go back and forth about the merits of the two shows, but the business case here is exceptionally clear: while both shows were originally part of a rotating format that resulted in very short seasons, McMillan had a six year run and racked up an acceptable 40 episodes; Banacek ran for two and had 17. With a handful of exceptions like Fawlty Towers, you simply cannot use a series with a less than 30 episode run as a tentpole (particularly not a show that wasn't that popular to begin with). Add to that the fact that Hudson's films (being part of the Universal catalog) are prominently featured on COZITV and the decision makes even less sense.

This is not an isolated case. At least one other prime time series (the Bold Ones, another revolving series starring, among others, Leslie Nielsen, Burl Ives, and Hal Holbrook) is left out as are shows like I Spy and Alias Smith and Jones and the Canadian imports, the Border and the Collector (both action dramas).  Nor do the rest of shows that do get covered hold together. Action shows are mixed with schmaltzy family dramas like Highway to Heaven and Marcus Welby that don't even run in prime time.

But what really strikes me here is how the promos that actually got made fail as promos. They aren't very funny and, more to the point, when they aren't funny they generally aren't anything. Just minimally edited clips that can serve as set-ups for punchlines that pop up on the side of the screen or are interjected by VH1 style talking heads. I started to embed a few examples but I don't like COZI's embed format so here are some linked descriptions:

Banacek is having a picnic with a woman. His car phone rings and his chauffeur starts to wave him over.
Punchline: "He needs a car with a longer cord."

Magnum is playing baseball. His friend Rick takes a line drive to the crotch. The woman who had hit the ball sees him collapse and asks, "is it your stomach?"
Punchline: "Stomach? Try a little lower."

Some of the spots are funnier than these examples but none are any good at their primary purpose. They don't build brand, they don't build viewer loyalty and since only a handful of shows get all the promotion, they don't even help to build awareness.

The executives at COZI don't understand how to promote and brand a terrestrial station. They are obviously clueless about scheduling. They don't know how to put together line-ups. They have little interest in their product and a vague feeling of contempt toward their viewers. They are, in any number of ways, the anti-Weigel.

It is worth noting that upon deciding to move into the terrestrial market, the Fox Entertainment Group (which is, as a rule, waaaay smarter than NBC) decided to take the exact opposite approach.

There's a bigger point here about how bloated and out of touch big companies can get and about the importance of opening up markets to small independent players, but this post is already far too long so that will have to wait for another day.

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