TV executives reveal tricks of their trade during conference

June 19, 1991|By Mary Corey

TV Execs Reveal Their Darkest Secrets! Learn How They Lure Viewers With Underhanded Techniques! You'll Never Feel The Same About Tuning In Again!

OK, OK, so that's an exaggeration. But no more of one than some TV promoters use to entice you to watch a show. You may think yours is the finger controlling the remote, but often many other hands have been at work behind the scenes, seducing you with anything from high-grade hype to near deception.

Check out these tricks of the trade presented by executives at a broadcast conference ending today at the Baltimore Convention Center:

* In designing a promotion for the TV premiere of "Satisfaction," NBC learned that Julia Roberts had a small role in the box-office bomb starring Justine Bateman. The network decided to do some creative advertising, changing the name of the movie to "The Girls of Summer" and splashing Ms. Roberts, not Ms. Bateman, across the promos.

* When focus groups objected to the appearance of a vampire in ads for "Dark Shadows," NBC executives decided to remove any mention of Barnabas Collins' role from TV spots, selling instead the promise of Gothic romance and mystery.

* And when CBS found itself with "The Laker Girls," a movie thin on plot but long on beautiful women, it used the old adage, "sex sells," to earn its ratings points. By airing promos that emphasized bare midriffs and pelvic thrusts, it finally created an image that singer Paula Abdul, a former Los Angeles Laker cheerleader, would have nothing to do with.

These examples were included in a workshop, "Promoting the Movies: How Low Did We Go?" featuring professionals from ABC, CBS and NBC, part of the four-day conference sponsored by the Broadcast Promotion and Marketing Executives and the Broadcast Designers' Association.

But what about the ethics of changing a movie's title and implying it has a different star? Is it lying? Or is it simply savvy promotion when you have aclunker?

"Our job is to get an audience," said John Miller, a senior vice president at NBC. "We may have to give a movie new appeal by giving it a new identity. That's not necessarily deceptive."

Those at the conference expressed mixed feelings about how far promoters should go to earn ratings. Some saw the promos in the workshop as misleading and a threat to viewer loyalty. Others said they were simply aggressive marketing.

"I look at it as business," said Alan Morris, director of affiliate market services for ABC in New York. "You have to sell your strength."

Chuck Blore, a leading producer of broadcast promotions, added, "Dishonesty is not a good word -- hyperbole is."

In the past 15 years, the marketing and promotion of TV programs has undergone dramatic growth. "The competition was not as intense as it is today, when viewers have 80 channels to choose from," said Paul Nichols, BPME spokesman."

To compete effectively, stations now use sophisticated research techniques and state-of-the-art technology. And promotions have gone from simple reminders to tune in at 10 to emotion-packed promises.

"You're promising some kind of escape," Mr. Blore said. "If you watch the program, it will make you laugh, give you knowledge."

But he's found that as viewers have grown more sophisticated, promoters have been forced to become more honest in their work. "Promo-ese" -- cliches like "zany antics" and "hilarious hi-jinks" once used to sell shows -- now have become passe among industry leaders.

Phil Arrington, WJZ-TV's creative services director, believes that local stations feel a greater sense of accountability to viewers, an attitude that often colors their promotions.

But how do executives think viewers would react to a frank look at the methods of TV promotions? "They would probably respect the promos more," Mr. Blore said. "But, on the other hand, they'd probably say, 'You're manipulating me.' "

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