Welcome characters, knowing drama and more — Discussing branding approaches by cable and broadcast networks

A few weeks ago, a number of critics and TV-related folk were blowing up my Twitter feed with their discussion on the greatness of USA Network. In short, these folks were watching screeners of White Collar‘s second season and the first few episodes of the network’s new series, Covert Affairs. They loved them. If I recall correctly, the discussion led to someone noting how no other network puts together quality series better than USA.

And while I think those kind of statements are hyperbole, it sent off some post idea alarms in my brain. These days, networks and channels are all about branding. Series have to be “on brand.” Promos have to be “on brand.” Everything, yep, you guessed it, has to be “on brand.” So while an individual network can have a few great series, if said series aren’t positioned properly within the brand, things can go wrong. Thus, the following paragraphs will discuss a number of broadcast and cable networks based on the networks’ ability to create quality programming, market it well and fit them within the brand. There will be some numerical values attached to various categories to make it more interesting (as if it needed to be, right?).

So here are the categories that I’m “grading” each network on from a 1-5 (5 being the best) scale: Program quality, Brand identity, Program-Brand synergy, Brand equity. Those are fairly self-explanatory, I believe, but if you’re a little confused, the first evaluation should clear things up.

Of course, this is just a fun little exercise intended to spark some conversation. Feel free to call me a complete idiot.

Cable side

USA Network: Might as well start with the conversation starter, right? Of all major TV networks, broadcast or cable, I’d argue that USA has the most obvious and direct “brand.” CBS is close behind, but the occasional outlier — the quality comedies don’t really scream “old people” to me — give USA and its “Characters Welcome” mantra the lead. Even the networks that can nail a brand can’t really touch how well USA makes certain all its series look the same. Despite varying locales, themes and genres, Burn Notice, White Collar, Royal Pains and Psych are all shot and edited in very similar ways. Heck, all the series have similar-sounding vague-ish names. Just say them out loud: White Collar. Burn Notice. Royal Pains. Covert Affairs. They all roll off the tongue in the same way, just as Psych and the just-finished Monk did for more straight comedy (I don’t know what to say about In Plain Sight — maybe the preposition doesn’t count?!). With all that, USA has done a splendid job at training us on what to expect from their series. The brand conjures specific images — probably of sunshine, beaches, smirking and smiling — and there hasn’t been any sort of major backlash against said images.

The biggest question with USA is how “good” the series actually are. The network has been especially smart at keeping them away from much competition by putting original runs in the summer and then in cozy winter spots that oftentimes go up against broadcast repeats. I don’t think any of the USA series would top a major critic’s top 10 list for any given year, aside from the occasional Burn Notice appearance. However, they won’t find themselves on any bottom 20 or 30 either, and even if a certain USA series isn’t your cup of tea — like me and Royal Pains — I’m not sure anyone can say that the content is “bad” or even “mediocre.” I’d argue that Burn Notice, White Collar and Psych are some of the most enjoyable weekly hours of television I watch, that’s for sure.

(Note: See a post over at In Media Res that discusses USA’s branding, you know, for more.)

Program quality: 3.5; Brand identity: 4; Brand-program synergy: 5; Brand equity: 4 –> Total = 16.5

AMC: It’s crazy to think that AMC is even in a discussion like this, because as early as three years ago, no one would have even considered them in any major television discussion. But after Mad Men and Breaking Bad, here we are. In terms of program quality, there’s no way that AMC can be touched. You know, because it airs the two best series on television. If this were wrestling, AMC would be holding both world titles right now.

But a lot of what’s happening with AMC is still so fluid. Two critically acclaimed programs does a network make, even if those are two of the best programs ever. The network swung and missed with its Prisoner mini-series so much that it totally buried it across just three days instead of the suspected 3-6 weeks. The newest AMC series, Rubicon, sneak premiered to sort-of solid reviews, but I’m not sure it’s going to even reach the small viewer heights as Bad and Men. Of course, this fall brings the hotly anticipated adaptation of The Walking Dead, which might be able to draw in a whole new kind of viewer to the other series. And there are a number of other projects in development.

Yet, what does that all add up to? The network stands on “Story matters here” as its slogan. It’s odd to say that “Story matters here” is more broad than “Characters welcome,” but with only two major projects backing the former up, the latter does actually hold more water. Yes, the story matters on Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but it didn’t really matter or make sense on The Prisoner and the “story” doesn’t quite exist yet on Rubicon. So, for me, the jury is still out on whether or not there’s really any collective branding strategy to what AMC is trying to do aside from “Hey, damn good television.”

Program quality: 5; Brand identity: 3.5; Program-Brand synergy: 3.5; Brand equity: 3.5 –> Total = 15.5

HBO: The cable giant is what AMC is trying to be, but after a few years of struggling, it’s probably a good time to take stock of where HBO is as a network and with its brand. At the height of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, nothing could touch HBO. Those series carried the mainstream appeal weight while Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood and to a lesser extent Carnivale and Rome rounded out one hell of a docket of programs. But suddenly, the network got cheap and canceled its more expensive endeavors like Carnivale, Deadwood and Rome just as the aforementioned mainstream properties were leaving the network. That led to a weird vacuum of time that left the network with little to tout.

However, things are certainly turning around for HBO, as we all suspected they would. True Blood is a major hit, Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s last season was somewhat of a return to popular consciousness and its stable of comedies, while not all great, are fairly popular and fit into the “It’s not TV…” perspective. Throw in the critical acclaim for Treme and mini-series The Pacific, plus two super-major projects coming in Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones and suddenly, HBO looks like a heavy hitter again.

Interestingly, while a few of its current series are critically acclaimed, most are just only “okay,” but people are surely tuning in anyway. More than any other network, HBO has the brand equity. People know what Sunday nights on HBO mean. They know that the “It’s not TV…” pitch is legit. While HBO was certainly in creative dire straights at the tail end of the last decade, the viewership didn’t dip as dramatically from what I can procure. That means that people are going to pay for the content no matter what — and that’s probably all that matters. When I mentioned that AMC wants to be HBO, that is especially true with the identity and equity because HBO has a vast slate of programming that doesn’t really connect whatsoever — except that you wouldn’t see it anywhere else. It’s vague and broad, but they’ve been able to back it up for long enough that we all buy into it.

Program quality: 4; Brand identity: 4.5; Program-Brand synergy: 4.5; Brand equity: 5 –> Total = 18

TNT: Much like USA, TNT has pushed its slogan, “We know drama,” into brains so we know have a Pavlovian reaction when we hear it. That reaction for me? Sighing and boredom. I don’t care for any of TNT’s programs except for the few episodes I’ve seen of Men of a Certain Age. But despite my issues, the TNT formula has clearly worked up until this point. The network has been very good at building procedural DRAMA series around strong individuals — much like USA — who are oftentimes female and always in some sort of law enforcement. For me, TNT is like the CBS of cable; the formula is there, certain people like it, certain people do not.

The network has extended its reach recently, with series that are more male-driven — Dark Blue, Leverage, Men of a Certain Age — and series that are just terrible — Rizzoli & Isles, Memphis Beat — so I have to wonder if re-discovering its roots is in the cards for TNT here in the near future. Saving Grace just left the air, the aforementioned newbies have not fared with critics and the male-baiting series don’t seem to be as popular. Of course, TNT still has The Closer, so there isn’t room for a whole lot of panicking. But maybe some?

Again, like the other cable networks with good branding, the “We know drama” stuff is vague, broad and easy to mock. But seriously, once you prove it a few times, people start buying into it. It’s easy to laugh at the constant mentioning of said montra, but in the last five years, TNT has proved that it does, indeed, know drama. Whether or not it continues to do so is something for another day, but even amid bad reviews for new series, the ratings seem to be doing fine and like USA, TNT keeps its big players away from any major competition.

Program quality: 3.5; Brand identity: 4.5; Program-Brand synergy: 4; Brand equity: 4 –> Total = 16

Broadcast side

The CW: The one interesting thing about the CW and its approach is that they’ve been the most outwardly vocal among the broadcast networks in saying, “hey, this is our strategy.” The network has been taken to task and lampooned by critical circles, but I think I kind of have to give the CW credit for being so forward with what they’re trying to do. The brass know that the network will never be a major player, so they’re basically taking an approach that is traditionally thought to be a “cable” move in applying their marketing pressure and content towards one specific group. Unfortunately, the CW picked a group that doesn’t watch a whole lot TV, especially in the traditional ways. The CW has tried to combat that with its “TV to talk/text/blog/tweet about” campaign, which I think is an effective marketing strategy. But again, because those avenues are measured in unknown or less quantifiable ways, it’s impossible to comment on how well the strategies have worked.

Moreover, the network’s attempts to bait tween and teen girls to watch television haven’t really netted any quality programming decisions. Gossip Girl is covered by Gawker, Vulture and the like, but just as many and most of the time, more, people watch the network’s blacksheep holdovers from the WB — Smallville, Supernatural and One Tree Hill —  and all the attempts to re-create that formula again and again haven’t quite paid off. 90210 is okay, but also has little buzz. The Melrose Place reboot was a terrible mess. Meanwhile, the two series that actually attempted something slightly different — Vampire Diaries, Life Unexpected — have people talking and watching. That suggests to me that despite all its posturing, other people outside of teenage girls are willing to watch CW programming if they don’t feel like they’re being beat over the head with trendiness.

This year, the network seems to have latched on to that idea a little bit, with its two new series being the action-oriented Nikita and the set-in-college Hellcats. Sure, not major stretches in any sort of imagination, but by creating series that appeal to other demographics while still prominently featuring young women, the CW could be able to slowly branch out without completely abandoning its home-base of viewers that help its series garner just over 1.0 rating in the major demos!

Program quality: 2.5; Brand identity: 3.5; Program-Brand synergy: 4; Brand equity: 2 –> Total = 12

FOX: This is a weird one. FOX is the most popular and arguably best broadcast network around, but it doesn’t push a completely coherent marketing strategy that ties it all up nicely. The content across the network is all kind of different in its own right, and there’s a definite edge that set the programs apart from other networks, but there isn’t one set demographic or group of people marketed to. Instead, FOX is now in the cozy HBO zone where it can push a marketing slogan like “So FOX…” and we just know that means sort-of different content with quirky-ish lead characters. I guess as a broadcast network, FOX doesn’t have to only appeal to one group of folks so those who watch Fringe don’t necessarily watch American Idol.

Content wise, I tend to enjoy what FOX puts out, despite its reputation for being unfriendly to highly invested fans. I honestly cannot think of anything else to say about FOX except it does a damn good job all the way around.

Program quality: 4.5; Brand quality: 4.5; Program-Brand synergy: 4.5; Brand equity: 4.5 –> Total = 18

ABC: After a number of years spent struggling, ABC famously recovered its audience thanks to the Class of 2004 — Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives — and has kind of meandered since. However, despite its inability to discover some new hits that build off of those three series, ABC has been very productive in re-building its brand as a destination for women. Amid the grizzly crime procedurals on CBS, the flashy young series on the CW and whatever the hell NBC is doing that day, women didn’t have an obvious destination on broadcast television until ABC started baiting them in. I believe the network is still working with its “Start here” montra which is okay enough for a major network, but it unfortunately has nothing to do with its programming or has that extra connection we make to the lines from FOX, USA or HBO.

Nevertheless, ABC has done well with creating a series of female-driven or -baiting programs like Brothers and Sisters, Ugly Betty, Castle, Dancing With The Stars, Private Practice and probably a few other ones I still am forgetting. Like USA, all of the ABC scripted series have a certain look and feel to them — it probably has something to do with that ridiculous amount of music the network thinks goes over every damn scene of every damn series. In that sense, ABC’s branding attempts have been fairly successful.

However, as a major network, ABC has oddly ignored its male audience. Well, let me phrase that better: ABC hasn’t created any more good programming that appeals to its male audience. After Lost, it’s been nothing but soapy dramedies that traditionally appeal to the ladies, while the yearly attempts at science fiction have failed dramatically. You’d think that the one network that actually aired Lost could see what made it popular, but no dice. I will be very interested to see how ABC approaches its brand and its content in the post-Lost era. The network has the opportunity to keep pushing its female-driven agenda because there aren’t many male-oriented series left to promote, but sooner or later, something will probably have to budge and men might need to be in the equation more.

Program quality: 4; Brand quality: 4; Program-Brand synergy: 4; Brand equity: 4.5 –> Total = 16.5

CBS: Much like FOX, with CBS there isn’t a whole lot to talk about. The Eyeball are damn good at creating procedural dramas and multi-camera sitcoms that fit in perfectly with its other procedural dramas and multi-camera sitcoms. CBS also has lots and lots of old people watching its network, meaning it dominates total viewership but can’t touch the younger demographics as well as some of its competitors. Its slogan is “America’s most watched network.” It is a correct one. Hmm.

The one thing that I will be interested in seeing is how CBS continues to evolve, or if it even has to. So far amid the ratings-sucking DVR and online streaming usage increase, CBS has been okay, but at some point, that has to change, right? The network hasn’t faced much adversity in the last few years, and I’d love to see how it would react to said complications. Its comedies skew a little younger and the network is taking a major leap by putting Big Bang Theory on Thursdays against major competition. How that plays out my alter how the network schedules and develops content over time. Maybe.

Program quality: 4; Brand quality: 4.5; Program-Brand synergy: 5; Brand equity: 4.5 –> Total = 18

NBC: Well, here we are. I certainly saved the worst for last. NBC has been the laughing stock of the television industry for a handful of years now, and amid all those problems, I’d argue that its biggest is the lack of identity. I guess one could say that all the other issues — scheduling, content development, hiring Ben Silverman — then created a situation where NBC, the most prestigious television network in our country’s history, meant nothing. The chimes, the Peacock, none of it means anything now. Well, unless you count embarrassment and ineptitude as meaning something. But once the network lost an identity in the middle of the last decade, things spiraled out of control. Television viewers don’t look to NBC for anything, they don’t expect anything and they’re not getting anything. Thursday comedy is the closest to any sort of must-watch content NBC offers and one night of seven isn’t going to cut it.

Now, NBC is holding on to this weird “More colorful” slogan that has been mocked in all corners of the web — and for good reason. Like I’ve discussed with almost every network, it’s one thing to come up with a broad, all-encompassing slogan that describes your network. It’s a totally different thing to have that slogan actually mean anything or have relevance to the people watching television. Right now when I think of “More colorful,” I just laugh and think, “Oh, okay, because the Peacock has colors!” And that’s what it feels like the NBCU people were thinking when they came up with the dumb thing. That’s not good enough.

For NBC, it’s a bottom up process. Better slogans aren’t going to improve the network or its brand. It needs to have a few winners in its batch of 10-11 pilots, and from the looks of things, that’s actually possible this year. It needs to push its few quality series — Parenthood, the younger Thursday comedies — while there’s still a chance of bringing in new viewers (I’d say the train has left the station for Chuck). If a few of the new series work and suddenly people want to tune in to NBC for more than just Brian Williams’ reading of the nightly news and the Thursday funnies, then perhaps a new branding strategy can reveal itself. NBC programming still has a specific look and feel to it — family friendly without being too cheesy — but it also needs to be good and well-marketed so other folks can realize that. There’s hope. Slim, but it’s there.

Program quality: 4; Brand quality: 3; Program-Brand synergy: 3; Brand equity: 3.5 (on prestige alone) –> Total = 13.5

So there you have it folks. This was fun. It seems fairly obvious that the cable networks have a leg up on their broadcast competitors, especially when it comes to creating a specific brand that’s backed up by quality programming. Why is that? Is it just because of lower expectations and more targeted approaches that the cable outfits can afford to develop long-term strategies that not only look good, but actually work? Is the strain of what the industry thinks “success” should be on network television just too stale and detached from changes around it, making the major broadcast networks fall behind based on approach alone? Is there any way for NBC to crawl out of its hole? Discuss.

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