The Rising Cost of "Free" Promotion - Mike Einstein - MediaBizBloggers

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There was an interesting article in this week's Chicago Tribune: Can TBS promos avoid overkill?It questioned the wisdom behind running so many promos in MLB playoff games for Conan O'Brien's new show, and cited the resulting downside of a similar effort two years ago on behalf of Frank Caliendo's, "Frank TV", perhaps the best example of a program people grew sick of before it ever aired.

TV networks have always used their own inventory to promote themselves. In fact, the total inventory consigned to this practice dwarfs by comparison any network's biggest cash advertiser. But it's really a carry-over from a less fragmented time, when primetime audience reach really meant something.

TBS's Frank TV debacle notwithstanding, and despite the fact that only 19 months have passed since its demise, the media landscape is less giving and less forgiving than ever.

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I remember speaking with a NASCAR executive at Turner around the time Frank TV was digging its own grave, and suggesting that NASCAR would be well advised to expand its promotional efforts beyond its own neighborhood, to which he replied, "Why would we do that when we have a network at our disposal that doesn't cost us anything?" "Because even though it doesn't cost you anything, the price is too high", I said. The phone silence that ensued spoke volumes about what TBS and NASCAR thought of my opinion, and I never got the chance to explain, having just told them what an ugly baby they had.

I won't say, "I told you so", but NASCAR ratings are in the tank, there are more and more empty seats at the venues every week, and there is no new Dale Earnhart, Jr. coming down the backstretch. Even if there were, NASCAR is stuck in an incestuous promotional pit stop. Good thing it doesn't cost them anything. Or does it?

There are two flawed premises at work here. The first is the foolish futility in preaching to a shrinking choir and in throwing more promo pasta on the wall in hopes more of it will stick. As Frank Caliendo might say to himself in his best Dr. Phil: "How's that workin for ya?"

But the greater downside to this self-serving clutter – the second fly in this promotional ointment – is the message it sends to the advertising community at large when your investment in yourself delivers such a poor return.

I remember several years ago having a conversation with a mid-market TV-station GM whose early news was mired in fourth place in a four-station race with a 3 HH rating.

He told me he was running 400 HH GRPs a week in news promotion during sweeps. His goal was to increase his rating by 33% to a 4. I told him he was making a big mistake, because (and this predates Frank TV) even if he could move the needle from a 3 to a 4, his ultimate yield would not justify the sacrifice of 1600 ratings points (over just four weeks) worth of sellable commercial inventory. I also told him that the public had already spoken on his news product as expressed by the 97% of HH that had chosen not to watch, and that a blitzkrieg of news promos (hello, Frank) would only distance them even more. I summarized my POV by stating that if he succeeded in jumping his news number to a 4, there would then be only 96% of the audience that still wasn't interested. In fact, I suggested he dump his news promotion idea entirely, sit on his 3 rating, and let me sell the 1600 points on a 50/50 split of the found money. He wasn't amused.

The bottom line: His news needle didn't budge. He blew his wad at the promotional track and came up a loser in more ways than one because any advertiser watching this fiasco unfold would be within its rights to question the value of its faith and investment in a station that can't even help itself. Clearly, 400 points a week just doesn't buy what it used to.

Back to Conan…the promos aren't funny at all. In fact, I find them embarrassingly unfunny, bordering on insulting by the second viewing. I predict much ado about nothing when November 9 rolls around and TBS suddenly realizes that they have another Frank Caliendo on their hands. Even if Conan wins his time period with a 1.5, it will have been a very expensive pageant to crown the tallest midget.

The good news is, now I know what the "ad" in ad nauseum really means!

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