MARKET FOCUS: Reality bites

Reality TV answers the call for quick ratings.

Reality TV answers the call for quick ratings.

Television publicity has changed in the past few years, but then again, it hasn't. The turn of the millennium brought with it a slew of reality TV (and an increase in programming in general), along with a growing fear that advertisements were so 20th century. But in terms of the day-to-day business of creating media and audience interest in the "god box," techniques have remained comfortably unchanged. Maybe an extra guerrilla campaign here or there, but for the most part, publicity tactics are stable. It's just the quantity and quality that sets the tone for today's entertainment publicity teams. "Everybody is in a climate where audiences are eroding," says Richard Licata, EVP of television and entertainment at Weber Shandwick agency Rogers & Cowan. "People like me and my peers are working much harder and challenging ourselves much more. This is not a time to sit back and expect things to come your way. It's a time to be proactive." Licata may sound like he's auditioning for Fear Factor rather than searching for ratings, but it's fear of falling short on audience numbers that keeps TV execs up at night. Reality programming is the current cure for quieting that trepidation. Born of the success of MTV's The Real World, the reality genre is looking less like lava lamps and more like electricity in terms of cultural acceptance, both from audiences and Hollywood's production machine. Because they are relatively inexpensive to produce and require a shorter commitment (some only last a half-dozen episodes), reality successes can be quickly cloned and flops rapidly cancelled, creating less risk for producers. This January alone saw the launch or planning of a dozen shows, from the tried-and-true such as The Bachelorette, to newer ideas like the WB's High School Reunion. While all those fresh offerings may sound like a business bonanza for entertainment publicity agencies, the increase in programming comes with a down side: Networks and cable channels are loath to continue throwing promotional dollars at shows that don't catch on quickly with viewers. "The key word these days in the television business is patience," says Peter Land, general manager of Edelman's entertainment and sports marketing division. "We're faced with the challenge that everyone needs to deliver right away." Where a few years ago broadcasters might change a show's time slot, increase promotion, or simply give viewers some time to find it, today's market is too competitive and crowded for coddling. "There was a time when a show would come on and it would stay on for six months," points out Helene Jaysen, EVP and partner at entertainment specialist Bragman Nyman Cafarelli. "Shows are more like films now. They have a few episodes, and that's it." A change in seasons The increase in the number of different shows has also affected the premiere season. Where networks once debuted new products during the fall, now shows come and go all year long. Fox even recently announced it will debut a new season of comedies and dramas, such as Malcolm in the Middle, during the summer - a time frame historically reserved for reruns. The new scheduling allows broadcasters to quickly pull unpopular offerings to make way for the dozens of potential hits in the pipeline. "You're seeing the introduction of shows being spread out over a much larger time period then you did in years past," says Dick Lippin, head of The Lippin Agency, which handles publicity for shows such as Law & Order and the upcoming remake of Dragnet. "It is almost mirroring what happened in theatrical distribution - a seamless year." The increased competition from cable channels has also added to the hectic pace. Subscription services such as HBO and Showtime are claiming larger audience portions and a disproportional amount of critics' praise. Their edgier (and some argue higher-quality) content is a more attractive subject for television writers than the dime-a-dozen reality shows. "It's not the kind of programming these writers want to plop into the VCR or the DVD on a daily basis," points out Licata of reality shows. "When wonderful television comes along, like a great episode of 24, it's like manna from heaven for them." Audiences also seem to recognize an offering from the TV gods when they see it. Last year, FX, long considered at best a second-stringer, won an Emmy award for actor Michael Chiklis' performances in The Shield. While the quality of the program ultimately won over both viewers and critics, FX's publicity machine worked overtime to compete with more prominent broadcasters and make sure the show had awareness - a growing trend for non-network broadcasters who are tired of being overlooked. "Cable promotion has gotten very aggressive," says Licata. "Suddenly you see FX with major billboards, with Michael Chiklis staring you in the face." For television publicity agencies, the increased competition means that along with producing results immediately, there is also the need to produce them creatively. Every broadcaster has an in-house publicity team pitching media and handling other standard tasks. Agencies are often charged with taking the campaign to the next level. There is a "rightful scrutiny on the bottom line," according to Edelman's Land. "So agencies have to provide value that the networks can't provide on their own. It's our job to go beyond 'tune-in' publicity.'" That, says Jaysen, often means taking the story off the media pages of publications and finding other angles to pitch. For celebrity-driven shows such as Friends or The West Wing, the opportunities to sell the stars are clear, especially when the characters themselves gain cultural currency. "When you're dealing with Martin Sheen or Jennifer Aniston, you're dealing with ongoing characters, and you can go deeper," points out Lippin. Shifting away from celebrities But TV publicity teams are increasingly trying to take non-celebrity-driven fare out of the arts section and into other areas of coverage. For example, Jaysen has concentrated her efforts on winning coverage for sports-themed programming in the sports media, such as last year's made-for-TV movie about basketball coach Bobby Knight, A Season on the Brink. Agencies are also letting the campaigns themselves become stories. ABC's Push, Nevada, for example, gained headlines for a guerrilla effort that landed a fictional Push hockey team outside the Good Morning America studio's window. "It's a crowded market, there is no question about it," says James Andersen, VP of communications for independent television producer Carsey-Werner-Mandabach (CWM), which created sitcoms That '70s Show and Grounded For Life. "You have to come up with ways to get the press interested without inundating them." Ratings are the lifeblood of broadcasters because they help set the advertising rates, but advertisers are increasingly looking for non-traditional ways to reach audiences. "They're frightened about the TiVos of the world," says Licata. Worried that audiences will soon have the technology to avoid ads, product placement and sponsorships are growing trends for consumer brand marketers. Some companies are even beginning to finance shows in order to exert creative control and ensure their products are featured. "Over the next five years, everybody is watching where this goes," says Land. "What most PR firms are telling their clients is that nobody is watching these ads, so we need to be clever in getting into these shows on the editorial side." Virtually every television producer is dipping their toes into the "Madison meets Vine" waters. At CWM, work has begun on a scripted (non-reality) show with Survivor creator Mark Burnett that revolves around a family road trip in Europe. The plan is that each season of the show will feature a different country - and a new set of sponsors integrated into the plot. "One of the things that is being considered is possibly finding partners to go in on it," says Anderson. "But we are trying to make it as seamless as possible. We want to be careful that it doesn't overpower the show." But independent television producers such as CWM have more to worry about than simply creating good products. Media consolidation is the hot topic in Hollywood these days, as the FCC begins to review its rules for media ownership. The amount of independent TV producers has declined dramatically in recent years. Many fear that a loosening of ownership rules would increase that trend, in effect leaving only the major broadcasters to create new programs. Two coalitions made up of writers, producers, directors, and other interested parties in the creative community have formed in the past weeks with the goal of lobbying the FCC and Congress to protect a diversity of voices in television programming. "The landscape has dramatically changed over the last 15 years. Now the networks and the cable companies are doing a lot of the programming in-house," says Victoria Riskin, president of the Writer's Guild of America, West, an organization spearheading one of the coalitions. "We are concerned about the FCC possibly engaging in further deregulation when there has already been such significant media consolidation, where you basically have five or six companies that own the lion's share of cable, television, newspapers, radio stations and motion-picture studios." ----- TCA: The Olympics of TV publicity For two weeks every January and July, the Television Critics Association (TCA) holds a press tour in Los Angeles, where the organization's 150 journalist members (the top writers and reporters covering TV) are submerged in pitches and presentations by broadcast publicity teams on the newest programs. Stars are paraded though, sneak peaks teased, and lavish parties held nightly, all in the hopes of positioning each offering as the next "must-see TV." It's a huge publicity endeavor where the stakes are high, and for some programs, it's the make-or-break moment to gain media attention and viewer awareness. The TCA was formed in the '70s, when the three broadcast networks were the only major players in the business. Today, the tour includes cable and subscription channels as well, making it hard for publicity teams to gain journalists' attention through the dozens of featured programs. In fact, some say the balance of power at the tour has shifted away from the networks and into the hands of the upstarts. "Cable television really dominates the TCA now," claims Rogers & Cowan's Richard Licata. "And the stars they attract are the ones the writers really want to talk to."

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