The Old “New Fall Season”

I grew up in a non-television household. We owned a TV but pretty much the only programs my parents watched were 60 Minutes and Masterpiece Theatre. TV was like dessert: an occasional treat rather than a staple of our diet. Yet somehow, despite being reared in an environment that was pretty hostile to television, I developed a fascination with the medium that eventually led to a career in television marketing.

I’ve been nostalgic lately about the excitement of the New Fall Season. It was like Christmas to me, with new shows to unwrap each night. I’d study the TV listings trying to guess what my classmates would be talking about on the playground the next day. Of course there were no DVRs or On Demand so you had to choose wisely. If you picked The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour instead of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family — and it turned out that Greg & Marcia were hotter than Sonny & Cher — you didn’t get a second chance to see that episode for weeks or months. You completely lost the opportunity to join the conversation about whether the new Chris was better than the old Chris.

The good news was that you had at least a 33 1/3% chance of getting it right since there were only three networks to choose from. In my mind the independent stations weren’t worth paying attention to and PBS was for toddlers and old people.

The competition for viewers was as intense back then as it is today, but that’s about the only thing that has remained constant. Now there are hundreds of channels to choose from and new shows premiere all year long. TV isn’t just on TV, it’s on your computer…and “binge viewing” has entered the lexicon as platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime launch whole seasons at once. Which got me thinking, does the New Fall Season even exist anymore and if it does, has it outlived its purpose?

I posed this question to Peter Gaffney, SVP of Programming for History and A&E. Pete grew up next door to me and remembers coming to my house to watch the Friday night preview show forthe new Saturday morning cartoons, so clearly my family gets partial credit for his highly successful career. He said that since the broadcast networks launch so many shows (most of which fail), promoting a whole new line-up at one time is more efficient than trying to market individual programs throughout the year. Cable networks, on the other hand, consciously avoid launching shows in the fall during the broadcast premiere frenzy (and the baseball post-season). He looks at the competitive landscape year-round for opportunities when new cable shows can get some attention.

It’s worth noting that many of the most successful series in broadcast television history did not premiere in the fall…like Seinfeld, Happy Days, All in the Family, Survivor, American Idol, Dallas and The Simpsons. Part of the reason these mid-season replacements were able to find an audience is precisely because they didn’t get lost in the madding crowd of Premiere Week promotion. Cable networks had the brilliant idea of counter-programming during the summer, launching new shows while the broadcast networks had all but given up. This strategy generated hits like Mad Men, Sex and the City, Entourage, The Wire, Weeds, Ray Donovan, and Louie, and programming stunts like Shark Week.

Fast-forward to 2015 and TV Guide’s website has an awesome Fall Preview section with show descriptions, a day-by-day schedule, trailers and more. It’s come a long way from the days of the black and white printed grid and is like crack to TV geeks like me. They consider fall to be August — November (which I think is a bit of a stretch) and include both series and season premieres.

A look at this year’s schedule reveals that cable spreads its premieres very evenly across this time period with 13 in August, 13 in September, 13 in October and 5 in early November. The Internet and satellite services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, DirecTV) also follow this model with 2 premieres in August, 3 in September, 4 in October and 3 in November. But broadcast still crowds the lion’s share of premieres into September through early October with only 2 premieres in August and 6 in November but a whopping 58 in September and 21 in October.

Audiences can’t possibly find out about and get excited about that many shows at one time. The competition for the hearts and minds and eyeballs of America makes promoting programming in smart, cut-through-the-clutter ways more important than ever. Content may be king but without marketing the king could be playing to an empty room.

Campaigns need to integrate traditional and digital tactics to build awareness and prompt sampling, with out-of-home and social media becoming more important all the time. Every campaign should include at least one unexpected element. As Stephen Colbert said, CBS plastered his face on every possible surface to promote his premiere on The Late Show…but using his voice and clever commentary on the Waze navigation app was the killer tactic in that campaign.

But what am I doing sitting here writing? I’ve got a whole lot of TV to watch!

Thoughts? Comments? I'd like to hear from you!