Even before the recent economic crisis, broadcast networks were facing unprecedented challenges. An article in yesterday's WSJ, "Network Audience Keep Eroding" caught my attention as it highlighted the current season's viewership shortfalls. The article pointed out that 4 of the 5 major broadcasters have suffered double-digit percentage declines in same day prime-time viewing among 18-49 year-olds as compared with a year ago.
To me, the overarching thematic challenge that broadcasters now face is how to successfully address the core 18-49 year-old audience. This group is important not only for traditional reasons relating to its appeal to advertisers, but also because it represents the leading edge of audience behaviors that will only accelerate in the future.
So what should broadcasters be doing? Here are three suggestions:
Broaden definition of programming and brand promise
Broadcasters must re-imagine what constitutes compelling visual entertainment. The traditional paradigm of 30 and 60 minute time blocks, scripted to accommodate pre-set advertising pods and programmed sequentially on specified evenings is increasingly meaningless in an on-demand world. Programming should be looked at as anything that entertains the audience, on their terms, period. This is particularly relevant for 18-49 year-olds who arguably have the most entertainment alternatives.
Though it breaks with traditional success formulas, network executives should be excited by this, as it loosens creative constrictions. Further, it offers up the opportunity to expand a network's "brand promise" to become positioned as a "wherever, however, whenever entertainment provider." Going forward networks should view themselves as being in the entertainment business, not just the TV business. This would also help bring advertisers along, as they too are suffering from diminished consumer access.
Embrace new distribution platforms, and help drive new development
In the above vein, broadcasters must fully embrace new distribution platforms like broadband, mobile, VOD and DVR. Creating programming specifically for these platforms, suited for each one's strengths and weaknesses is essential. Simply repurposing TV shows for these platforms is insufficient to meet 18-49 year-olds' entertainment appetites.
Further, broadcasters need to take a leadership role in how these new platforms evolve. It is not enough to accept what technology and service providers choose to prioritize and offer. Instead broadcasters must have their own roadmaps and requirements, and work actively to see that their needs are met. This is a new role for broadcasters and they need to learn to embrace it.
Focus on experience, not just ratings
Broadcasters need to look at their shows as the hub of an ongoing and immersive entertainment experience, not just a once per week interaction to be measured in ratings points. A network's "customer relationship" is repeatedly put on hiatus between episodes (and worse, between seasons!), thus undermining the viewer's loyalty and engagement. A friend recently lamented to me that NBC is offering just 14 new episodes of "The Office" this season. Realistically, what kind of customer relationship should NBC expect to have when so many other weeks of the year pass without offering a product to its customers?
Broadcasters have incredibly compelling assets that can be the basis for deeper audience engagement and experiences. Mining all the various interactive tools and capabilities which 18-49 year-olds already regularly engage with are crucial to bonding with audiences and creating excitement and ongoing loyalty. To be sure, some of this is already happening, but in perusing the networks' web sites it's obvious there's a lot more that can be done.
Broadcasters are getting squeezed by audience fragmentation, new technologies and the shift to on-demand consumption. The 18-49 year-old cohort is ground zero for networks to maintain their future health. What the networks choose to do, and how well they succeed at it is surely a business school case study in the making.
What do you think? Post a comment now!