Behind the scenes of a powerhouse

ABC has been steadily winning back fans, but a new wave of prime-time hit shows, coupled with a bold digital strategy, is giving the network even greater buzz.

ABC has been steadily winning back fans, but a new wave of prime-time hit shows, coupled with a bold digital strategy, is giving the network even greater buzz.

It took a made-under editorial assistant to help make over a second-place TV network. When ABC/Touchstone Television accepted the ICG annual Maxwell Weinberg Publicists Award on February 7 for its campaign on behalf of Ugly Betty, it won the respect of industry peers.

Thanks to a multi-faceted publicity strategy - one involving cross-departmental teamwork, multi- cultural outreach, and a host of special events - ABC proved that fashion-obsessed American audiences could actually fall for a less-than-perfect leading lady.

Betty is just one of The Walt Disney Co.-owned broadcaster's current successes. The network's prime-time lineup currently includes five of Nielsen Media Research's top 20-rated programs.

ABC executives did not make themselves available for comment on this piece, and many PR practitioners would speak only on background. But publicists agree that to maintain audience interest around even the most initially alluring program, a network must dedicate focused attention and resources, and even take some risks.

Indeed, ABC took chances with its format, shifting time slots and counting on popular shows, such as Dancing with the Stars, Desperate Housewives, and Grey's Anatomy, to both carry it through rough spots and draw viewers to its yet-to-be-proven offerings.

One rough spot has been the controversy surrounding Grey's cast member Isaiah Washington, who used an anti-gay invective in reference to cast mate T.R. Knight - twice. Depending upon whom one asks, ABC either handled the situation properly or fumbled the whole thing. It was an unfortunate episode for Grey's, as the show and its marketing efforts have otherwise been a boon for the network.

"If you look at the campaign for Grey's, it feels like a movie was being released," says one entertainment publicist, who asked not to be identified.

That's a strategy the Burbank, CA-based network has adopted for a number of its high-profile programs: treating them as mini-movies and engaging outside agencies or independent publicists to handle PR, instead of relying solely on in-house staff. Often, efforts also include the services of a multicultural-focused firm.

"ABC has actually done a great job in approaching the Hispanic audience," says Gabriel Reyes, whose LA-based Reyes Entertainment handles Hispanic-market outreach for ABC Primetime. "It's really a very organic process from the very start. As programs get developed, in casting and writing, and behind the camera, as well."

Reyes says ABC "seeks to represent what American really looks like," and audiences of all backgrounds respond to that. "It really comes as a desire and need to reflect what society actually looks like, as opposed to a need to pander," he says. "It's more about saying, 'Hispanics are a part of the American mainstream.'"

One show that comes close to representing what America really looks like is Lost, the diversity of its cast arguably an asset to its plotline's obscurity. Though the show has seen declining ratings since its return from a midseason hiatus - possibly owing to its new, later time slot - "Lost is a really good example of a show that leverages a broadcast audience very effectively across other media," says James McQuivey, VP of television and media technology at Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research.

In addition to watching Lost on TV, show enthusiasts can participate in Lost online communities or download Lost mobisodes featuring exclusive backstories and character profiles. It has also made possible some creative sponsorship opportunities. Still, adds McQuivey, "no matter how many people watch online, it doesn't compare to the millions of people who watch the broadcast."

ABC has been active in exploring multiple-screen strategies and new-business models since parent Disney's groundbreaking agreement in October 2005 to sell content on Apple iTunes. Last March, the network introduced free, ad-supported programming available for streaming on ABC.com.

But while Internet TV and movie sales could generate an estimated $150 million in revenue in 2007 - and more than $320 million in 2008 - digital may still be more of a marketing tool than a real business-growth driver. In the coming year, streaming and downloadable TV show and movie sales will represent only a small percentage of Disney's overall revenue, according to the company, and while ABC could earn almost $2 million a year in video-streaming advertising sales, its broadcast ad sales will likely trump $2 billion.

Content-first approach

In a move more fundamental to the network's current business efforts, ABC recently ditched its near decade-long penchant for "cool kid" tactics and returned to a traditional approach to overall network branding.

"ABC came to us and said they'd like us to come up with a solution to brand the network in a way that would allow the content to shine," says Elaine Cantwell, creative director at Santa Monica, CA-based broadcast design firm Spark. "Our job was to solidify the relationship between ABC's shows and its brand identity, so it was very clearly branded in viewers' minds that this was ABC, but it didn't impinge upon a show's identity."

With network time at a premium, Cantwell adds, branding should offer viewers a holistic experience, with multiple messages about network content and viewing.

"Now we have 'You're watching ABC': a look and a feel, a way [viewers] can relate to the network, and the type of viewer they are," she explains.

When ABC launched its "Be Ugly '07" campaign on December 30, "it transcended just a good hit show," Reyes says. "It aimed to empower young women to believe in themselves, and love themselves just as they are - like Ugly Betty." The tagline, Reyes quotes, is "Be real, be smart, be passionate, be true to yourself, and be ugly."

And if that helps boost ratings, there's a network in Burbank that's got four eyes and tinsel teeth.

ABC Television Network

Division  Key shows 
Daytime   The View, General Hospital, All My Children
ABC Entertainment Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Ugly Betty
ABC Kids   That's So Raven, Hannah Montana, The Emperor's New School
ABC News Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20

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