Upfront for TV networks: Build brands, loyalty

President of Entertainment and Media of A+E Networks Nancy Dubuc speaks onstage at the A+E Networks 2013 Upfront on May 8, 2013 in New York City.

The annual television extravaganza known as the upfronts started today in New York. Networks throw big parties to introduce their fall schedules and, they hope, in the process convincing advertisers to part with about $9 billion in ad spending.

But the upfronts are coming at a time when the television business is changing, and maybe not in a good way for the networks.

"They're not dead yet," said Warren Littlefield, a television producer who headed NBC entertainment for much of the 1990s. That's faint praise coming from a guy who championed hits like "Cheers," "Friends," "Seinfeld," "E.R." and "The West Wing" during his tenure. 

But the era of time-sensitive, must-see TV is, for the most part, over. And unlike some cable providers and startups, the Big Four have been slow to embrace new technologies. 

"Networks have been like the music industry, where they feared change," Littlefield said.

The model for generating new content, too, is largely unchanged. ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox order dozens of pilots each season. Very few are picked up. Even fewer make it a whole season, let alone gets a second one. The time pressure for a show to become a hit is enormous. 

"A lot of young is led to slaughter, there's no question about that," Littlefield said of the pilots. 

Despite AMC's surging ratings success with "The Walking Dead," and the critical acclaim lavished on shows like "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," the networks still pull many more viewers overall.  

"Really their pitch this week in New York will be, 'Advertisers, if you want to sell, then you must come to us,'" Littlefield said. "While they still have that circulation, you know, 10 million viewers for an average show, up against a cable model? That's still a very good number." 

In a very fast and competitive market, networks would do well to create a cohesive brand, according to Littlefield. 

"Look at a network like CBS," he said. "They're not the youngest, they're not the hippest, but that consistency of vision is what they're going to tout when they go out there this week." 

The other thing CBS has going for it: an older audience that still watches television on a box, when it's on.

But Littlefield says the networks are going to have to push themselves. "How else are we going to bond with the audience? How are we going to offer our vision [so that this] will become the favorite show?"

And with so many platforms and ways of watching to choose from, even a former TV honcho has more programs to choose from than hours in a day.

"That DVR is screaming at me every night: 'Warren, it's time. Take a look.'" 

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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