Networks Sweep the Net for Lost Viewers

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With the Internet eating into consumers' television viewing time, the once monolithic television networks are bolstering their online marketing hoping to draw viewers back offline in time for the all-important May sweeps.


On average, consumers are spending one hour a day online that they would have spent watching television, said Jack Myers, CEO and chief economist at The Myers Group, a New York-based economic research firm that follows media spending.


It is for this reason and others that networks such as Fox have been increasing their online marketing efforts and will continue to do so, said Tiffany Keele, director of national promotions at the Fox Broadcasting Co., Los Angeles.


"Consumers come home and instead of turning on the television or the radio or reading a book, they are going on their computers," she said. "It's a pastime. It's a medium we can't ignore as a network."


Among Fox's online marketing efforts are three promotions with iWin.com, a popular contest site. It's most current, "Fox: Behind The Scenes," kicked off last week and will run throughout the sweeps period. The winner and a guest will be flown to Los Angeles for an opportunity to see what goes on behind the camera with a visit to a Fox show.


IWin.com also has created May promotions in conjunction with the airings of the Party of Five and Beverly Hills 90210 finales, as well as NBC's The 70s mini-series.


"There's lots of action now for the sweeps," said Mark Stroman, senior vice president of sales and marketing at iWin.com, Los Angeles.


Also, networks' online activity will probably increase even more in the fall. "The ad agencies are doing their buying and planning for the fall season," said Stroman. "From what we're seeing in the media marketplace, online ad spending by the networks will increase 30 to 40 percent for the fall season."


Fox also foresees shelling out additional ad dollars to reach consumers on the Web, said Keele. "Each year, the amount of money we spend on online advertising will increase. This year alone, we bought banners, buttons and promotions on 25 to 30 different Web sites. Maybe as little as two years ago we didn't advertise online at all."


These boosted online budgets have as much to do with the growth of the Internet as an entertainment source as it does with the networks' failure to generate loyalty among their viewers, said Myers. "There's a loss of loyalty, commitment and relationships among viewers."


By juggling schedules and manipulating programming, the networks have shot themselves in the foot, said Myers. "It used to be Tuesday at seven you knew exactly what you were going to watch. Now, programs don't start until November, you never know when it's original or repeat."


Cable and satellite television also have contributed to a dilution of programming, according to Keele.


Another problem the networks face is having little information on who's watching. "Developing a one-on-one and personal relationship with consumers is one of the big future tasks for all of the networks," said Stroman. "They have 15 million viewers a night, and they couldn't tell you who any of them were. Every day that goes by, they realize that it's getting later in the game. They're missing a chance to start that relationship with consumers."


The promotions allow the networks to collect a database of consumer information as well as to spur viewing. One of the ways this is accomplished is through forced viewership programs. Fox's Party of Five promotion asked viewers to watch the series finale Wednesday. Thursday, it launched its "Party of Five Super Stumper," a trivia contest focusing on the last show. Those who answered the questions correctly were entered to win collectibles such as wardrobes and original props from the show's set.


IWon.com, which is partly owned by CBS, has created similar promotions such its Club CBS loyalty program, in which viewers earn points at the site for watching a CBS program and knowing who the star of the day was.


For marketing and other purposes, most of the networks have formed alliances with dozens of Web sites. NBC has approximately 50 deals with dot-coms such as Flooz.com, iVillage.com and Space.com. CBS has as many as 18 deals with sites such as iWon.com, MarketWatch and SportsLine. ABC has a handful of deals with sites like Netpliance, Pets.com and Toysmart. Fox has commitments with WebMD.com.


The sweeps run through May 24.
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