Bob Costas hated the dragon thing as much as you do.
During a recent appearance on ESPN’s Cleveland radio affiliate, the broadcaster riffed about Warner Bros. Discovery’s misguided cross-promotional stunt, in which a shabbily-CGI’d dragon flapped around in the air above Yankee Stadium before Game 1 of the ALDS. Looking for all the world like something that went horribly wrong during a giant’s bris, the digitized beast served as the centerpiece of a promo read for HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel.
“From a production standpoint, there’s a lot more stuff,” Costas told WKNR listeners the day after gutting out the exercise in corporate synergy. “The commercial imperatives are such that there’s more drop-ins during the games.” Costas went on to say that he tried to muffle the sounds of his rolling eyeballs (“how do I distance myself from this without totally trashing it?”) before noting that promotional over-reach is one of many concessions a sportscaster must make in a platform-agnostic universe.
Cornball theatrics aside, in-house promotions are as familiar a part of the sports-TV experience as are halftime show banter and insurance commercials. Live broadcasts generate the largest audiences, and as such are the sturdiest platforms from which to hype a network’s primetime programming slate. According to Nielsen, approximately 25.4 million people saw the in-house promos for The Equalizer and So Help Me Todd that aired during CBS’s Oct. 16 coverage of the Bills-Chiefs game. Last month, another 26.4 million viewers were exposed to the teasers for Monarch that aired during Fox’s national NFL window (83% Packers-Bucs).
While it’s only natural that the networks use their biggest and loudest megaphones to make noise for all the other shows on their air, much of TV’s in-house promotional efforts are wildly ineffective. “A smart, funny promo can help convince a lot of people to sample a smart, funny show,” one TV marketing veteran said. “Where we run into difficulty now is, most of the shows just aren’t very good. The promos are crap, too, so everything balances out to zero.”
That was a joke, although not the kind that TV people find terribly funny. “We’ve been working by the same set of rules for the last 50 years,” the marketing exec said. “‘Use the big audience to build up the smaller audience on another night.’ ‘Have the actress from that thing do the anthem.’ ‘Throw out anybody who’s 55 or older.’ These are the best ideas we have. They don’t really work.”
There’s ample evidence to suggest that promos are not an effective way to get sports fans to explore other elements of a network’s schedule, regardless of how many happen to catch a given tune-in spot. According to iSpot.tv data, no preseason trailer received more attention than the one for the new Fox drama Monarch, which generated 807.1 million impressions during the first two weeks of September. The Monday night musical, which was promoted heavily in Fox’s early NFL coverage and launched in a special post-football window on Sept. 11, is the third lowest-rated show on network TV, averaging fewer than 270,000 adults 18-49 per episode.
Among the other network shows that have failed to convert promo exposure into actual viewers are ABC’s Alaska Daily, which has averaged under 380,000 adults 18-49 after a two-week, football-heavy push that racked up 814.7 million impressions, and NBC’s returning series La Brea, which drew 535,000 members of the dollar demo in the wake of a half-month promo run that scared up 928.7 million views.
While marketers every year spend nearly $500 million on Super Bowl ads, the Big Game’s vaunted ability to sell Cheetos and lager doesn’t seem to translate to building a primetime audience later in the week. During the 2021 Super Bowl, CBS aired multiple spots for Clarice, a serialized adaptation of the Silence of the Lambs IP that bowed four nights after the Bucs humbled the Chiefs. Of the 99.7 million people who saw the Clarice teasers, only 4 million tuned in for the premiere. The show was quietly canceled after its 13-episode run.
Even the coveted Super Bowl lead-out spot rarely drives the ratings needle, as the broadcast archives are crammed with shows that turfed out after their moment in the February sun. For every one-hour Friends special that averages 52.9 million viewers and then continues to set the ratings charts ablaze, there have been multiple flops; among the lead-outs that hit the wall shortly after Super Sunday include the long-forgotten James Brolin vehicle Extreme, the Randy Quaid curiosity Davis Rules and MacGruder and Loud, which you’ll have to Google. That all three of these unsalvageable shows aired on ABC is a coincidence, although one that speaks to a new wrinkle which may help improve promotional efficiency.
Let’s assume a best-case scenario, one in which the shows a network has to promote are of a considerably higher quality than whatever it was Aaron Spelling thought he had working for him in MacGruder and Loud. While the fragmentation of the primetime audience is largely to blame for broadcast TV’s lackluster deliveries, there are also demographic factors at work that undermine the efforts of the network promo units. For example, women now make up approximately 36% of the NFL’s national TV deliveries, but many of ABC’s tentpole series serve up an audience that is 75% female. There’s a disconnect between the “borrowed” NFL audience and the core of viewers who make up the bulk of ABC’s user base; as such, most of those who see the in-house promos that air during Monday Night Football aren’t likely to sniff out the weekday dramas, comedies and competition shows.
CBS has had a more favorable success rate because it arguably understands its brand better than any other TV outlet. Knowing that the square-peg/round-hole approach doesn’t really pay off in a spike in weeknight viewers, CBS used Super Bowl LV less as a cudgel—we’re going to keep pounding away at your defenses with this “Young Sheldon” business until you crack—and more as a gentle prod. The Tiffany network mixed single-show promos with a more generalist branding push devised to highlight its various sports, entertainment and news offerings. Rather than blasting out a 30-second hook for each show on its air, CBS instead focused on articulating its primetime brand while setting forth its vision for the over-the-top platform Paramount +.
The traditional show promos were hit or miss, as is evident by the subsequent performance of Clarice. But the other key show CBS chose to highlight during the Super Bowl managed to make the most of its exposure; The Equalizer, starring Queen Latifah, not only held onto nearly half of its premiere audience (20.4 million), but also went on to earn bragging rights as the network’s third highest-rated drama of 2020-21. Since its big Sunday sendoff, The Equalizer in its third season now stands as TV’s top-rated scripted series.
So that worked. But what about the WBD dragon stunt? Costas wasn’t a fan, and when tasked with interacting with the fake dragon, MLB Network/Turner Sports reporter Lauren Shehadi looked as if she were mentally compiling an alphabetical list of places she’d rather be at the moment. Because Nielsen hasn’t issued its latest tally of streaming figures, it’s impossible to say if the clunky bit managed to convert any baseball fans into HBO viewers, but at last count, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series had a slight advantage over House of the Dragon on the sword-and-sorcery front.
At least one TV marketing vet thinks the virtual promo was probably as ineffective as any other media plan that involves the indiscriminate cramming-together of two wholly unrelated programming elements. “Other than the guy who writes the books [noted Mets fan George R. R. Martin], there can’t be all that many viewers who divide their time between baseball and genre stuff, even if they are analytics geeks,” the exec said. “Twitter’s not ‘real,’ but the reaction there was explosively negative—a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, the hell with this.’”
Odds are, if the promotion had paid off in a spell of HBO converts, we’d have since seen a follow-up to the Yankee Stadium effort. But thus far in the ALCS, the skies above Houston have been uncluttered by scaly flying monsters. A week from now, Fox will likely ask a bunch of young actors to pretend to like baseball while sitting in the stands of whichever venue will host the World Series opener. In a cruel twist of fate, Animal Control’s Joel McHale, a die-hard Mariners enthusiast, and Jon Hamm (Grimsburg), an old-school Cards guy, may be recruited to cheer on one of the clubs that knocked their own faves out of the playoffs.
It’s a cruel business, and not terribly effective. “I’ve never been clear on how showing some people with SAG-AFTRA cards in their pockets sitting in the rain is going to get fans to watch their new workplace comedy,” the marketing exec said. “Parasitism is also a form of synergy, and I can’t remember the last time someone invited a tapeworm to the World Series.”