As Fall TV Premieres Are Scrambled by COVID, Network Marketers Adjust Their Strategies

With the kids back in school and Labor Day fast approaching, this is traditionally the time of year when the networks kick their fall-season campaigns into high gear. Promos begin airing, billboards pop up all over the country and executives start examining awareness and intent-to-view data on their new shows.

But this is fall 2020. And it’s hard to track awareness or intent to view when most of the networks aren’t even sure when — or if — their lineups will make it to air. The last time real life encroached on fall in this way was in 2001, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks pushed the official season to November. But production wasn’t impacted then the way it is now; that’s why 2020 may be more like 1981, when a Writers Guild strike kept sets dark and shows off the air until late fall.

Of course, television was a very different business back then, and once the dust settled, network viewership pretty much went back to normal. There’s no “normal” to the TV biz anymore, and this year, promoting a fall slate was going to be daunting even without a pandemic. We live in a noisy marketplace crowded by the addition of five major new streaming services that weren’t even in business a year ago. And then there’s the overwhelming distraction of an incredibly contentious presidential campaign that has the entire nation on edge.

Now add in the long overdue national reckoning of this country’s systemic racism and the deadliest pandemic of our lifetime, with more than 170,000 Americans dead at press time. Anyone want to hear about a new comedy?

While Fox and The CW mapped out “pandemic-proof” lineups made up of acquisitions and shows already in the can, ABC, NBC and CBS announced slates filled mostly with returning shows. But it’s unclear how or when some of those series — especially in scripted — will resume production and make it to air. Until that’s for certain, marketing is on standby.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure our viewers know their favorite shows are ‘coming soon,’” says Shannon Ryan, marketing president for ABC Entertainment, Disney TV Studios and Hulu Originals. “It’s a larger message about the return of television in addition to typical fall launch campaigns. We’re using a lot of tease and early awareness tactics to plant those seeds, and then it will be a hard turn to where and when viewers can find their shows.”

New CBS marketing chief Mike Benson says he’s approaching premieres much like a streamer does — which makes sense, given his recent tenure heading up marketing at Amazon Prime Video. “You launch the shows as they come, and you’ll roll with it,” he says. “And I do think that just like we had to find a different approach to the upfront, we will find a different approach to the fall season.”

“For marketing, we have our purpose and our drive to launch fall. It’s what broadcast is expected to do.”
Darren Schillace, Fox marketing executive VP

It’s Benson’s first fall in his new Eye network role since taking over for retired exec George Schweitzer. But he’s no stranger to broadcast campaigns, having spent years at ABC before moving to Amazon.

“This fall launch may not look exactly like last fall launch, and I think that’s OK,” he says. “As long as we get a good regular cadence of new content coming for our customers, I think that there may be benefits in seeing how we can roll out a fall season differently than we have in the past.”

CBS managed to get its summer franchises “Big Brother” and “Love Island” up and running in August, and while that’s later than usual, it will allow the network to continue those shows into September and use them as launchpads when the network’s lineup is ready.

But for CBS, NBC and Fox, the biggest unknown remains the NFL. Football continues to be the dominant ratings force for broadcast, and a critical part of their marketing strategies. What happens if the football season is delayed or even canceled due to COVID?

“There’s no secret that at Fox, for marketing we lean heavily on the promotional value of football,” says Fox marketing executive vice president Darren Schillace. “I know that the league wants their season to happen, and we’re just weeks away as I knock on wood. We’re going to retain that optimism; we’re planning for it. And we’re looking at what’s our contingency if it doesn’t happen. How do I shift my promotional weight? How do I set my dollars?”

Fox went a different route with its fall lineup, acquiring repeats of the Spectrum original series “L.A.’s Finest” and pushing midseason dramas “Next” and “Filthy Rich,” along with unscripted series “MasterChef Junior” and “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” — all of which were originally set to air last spring — to fall. Along with the return of “The Masked Singer” and Sunday animated comedies, Fox is aiming to treat this fall like any other. (Well, as long as football comes back.)

“I hesitate to say, ‘Business as usual,’ because the business that surrounds us is anything but,” Schillace says. “But for marketing, we have our purpose and our drive to launch fall. It’s what broadcast is expected to do. How could we not be ready for fall launch in September?”

Schillace notes that networks have to be more cautious in ensuring their marketing messages don’t appear tone deaf in this environment. That’s especially true with a cop drama like “L.A.’s Finest,” given Hollywood’s past tendency to focus on “heroic cops” over depictions of police brutality. “We’re mindful of how you portray police right now,” he says. “They are good cops; we want to show them as good cops. And you probably look at everything that they’re doing just with a different lens now to make sure that we’re representing things correctly.”

The networks must also figure out not just how but where to focus their marketing efforts in 2020. “We know media changes year to year, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a seismic shift in a single year over year,” Schillace says.

Everyone seems to agree that outdoor advertising, including billboards, is out. And forget about advertising in venues like shopping malls, or in movie theaters, for obvious reasons. “I think it’s still too early to really understand what will and won’t be open, and quite frankly, even if it’s open, who will or won’t be bold enough to venture into something that has been closed down to them for so long?” says The CW streaming president and chief branding officer Rick Haskins.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift of network marketing budgets to digital, and Haskins says one platform in particular: “I think that if anyone is a winner in the pandemic, it’s TikTok. You have all of these young people who couldn’t do anything but quarantine, and TikTok provided them a safe haven. I think you’re going to see us doing new things on TikTok that we haven’t done before. … I’ve always believed that social is becoming the new outdoor, what people look at on a daily basis, like a lot of people do outdoor coming to and from work. In some ways the pandemic pushed up what I think is the inevitable — of moving more dollars [to social].”

Besides going virtual with their upfront presentations this year, marketing teams have also had to pivot in creating campaigns without all the usual tools — such as talent, which may not be available given the restrictions. Fox produced a fall preview special, with host Ken Jeong, via a small COVID-compliant production on the Fox lot. But press tours are now all virtual, and traditions like the all-day “mondo shoot,” in which talent interact while shooting photos, promos and electronic press kits, have been scrapped, or reimagined in various ways. Stunts and experiential tactics are also going virtual, Ryan adds.

“I think the most important thing we can do right now is keep our options open and be willing to turn on a dime,” Haskins says. “From a creative perspective, it does give the team a chance to look at things in a very different way. There’s nothing more fun than trying new things and not getting yelled at.”

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