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In my twenty-year marketing career, I've purchased over a million dollars in television advertising on behalf of my clients.  To do justice to those ad buys, I've had to learn the inner-workings of the TV business - ratings, programming, news, promotions, spot production and of course, the buying process itself.

I've read most of the fantastic diaries this week about the pressure we're exerting on ABC in advance of its Clinton-bashing fiction piece, "The Path to 9/11."  If you'll indulge me, I'd like to add a few notes to that conversation that seem to be missing from previous posts.

If I do this right, we'll have even more actionable ways to put the hurt on the Advocating Bush Company (ABC, for the acronym-challenged).

There are a few items that you might find interesting...

Networks care about two things, and you're not one of them.

There are three "A's" in the world of television.  In order of importance to the networks, they are:

1. Advertisers
2. Affiliates
3. Audience

Ad revenue is king.  Much of the commercial time is sold months in advance, in the spring, during a season called "upfront."  This is when networks preview their fall schedule for major advertisers and advertising agencies.  The networks project certain ratings for each program (more on that below), and offer discounted ad rates to the agencies that buy large ad schedules well in advance.  By doing this, the networks "sell out" a large percentage of their commercial inventory long before the fall season even begins.  Shows that were well-received during the upfront period will have premium price tags on them later, when inventory is more limited.  TV advertising is sold on a supply/demand system, and one advertiser can "bump" another by offering a higher rate.

"The Path to 9/11" is airing with "limited commercial interruption," according to ABC - but the sponsors and advertisers that are involved purchased their airtime months ago.  Their participation in this "movie" is linked to other ABC ad buys.  In other words, the more they bought on ABC this fall, the lower the rates went.  It's for this reason that you won't see a lot of advertisers pulling out of the show - because their ad rates in "Path" are inextricably tied to their ad rates elsewhere on ABC.

So how should the netroots pressure advertisers, if they're unlikely to pull out and jeopardize their "Grey's Anatomy" rates?  The only real effective route is organized boycott.  Individual boycotts (you and I sending emails that threaten to boycott) are viewed as anecdotal, even in large numbers.  Organized boycotts - those with the strength of group influence - are much more likely to cause and advertiser to think twice, and to subsequently distrust the future "sales pitches" of the offending networking (ABC).  This is why Focus on Family is occasionally effective - because the boycott effort is organized and influenced.

If ad revenue is king, then keeping affiliates happy is, well, queen.  Your local ABC affiliate depends on the network to produce solid programming - especially programming that leads directly in or out of locally-produced newscasts.

The local affiliate has only a few commercials to sell in the network programs, because the majority of ads have already been bought by national advertisers (see above).  Where the local affiliate makes its money is in their own newscasts, where they control (and make) 100% of the advertising inventory.  

Telling the local affiliate that you won't watch "The Path to 9/11" is like throwing a lawn chair off the Titanic; it's meaningless because they control so little of the ad revenue there.  The only real way to pressure the local affiliate is to stop watching their news.  If you do that, the affiliate will exert its pressure uphill, to the network.  And the network can hardly afford to piss off its affiliates.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: many of you have been sending emails to your local affiliates via their websites.  Those emails, in the vast majority of cases, are going to the affiliate's Program Director.  To be effective, you must send your emails to the General Sales Manager.  He/she is the one person most concerned with the boycotts, news viewership, and the correlation between ratings and ad revenue.

Find a complete list of ABC affiliates here.

Finally, there's you, the audience.  Obviously, the networks all want to "win" their timeslots - to attract the largest number of viewers during a specific time period.  But ad revenue is not based on how many people watch - it's based on how many people are expected to watch.

TV works on a "ratings projection" system.  Both the network and the local affiliate estimate the number of viewers for a particular program, and base their ad rates on those estimates.  Essentially, they pull these numbers out of their collective asses, over inflating audience projections to garner the highest ad rates.  Savvy media buyers will insist on what's called a "point guarantee" - that is, an agreement that if actual audience levels fail to meet projections, the ad rate will be retroactively lowered and credited.

But the moral to the story is simple: of the three "A's", the advertisers and affiliates can inflict substantially more pain on the network than the audience.

But there is a fun way for the audience to be heard.

If you own a DVR, read this.

Your cable or satellite company (DirecTV, Dish Network) is reporting to ABC (and the other networks) what programs you have on a "timer."  If your DVR, for instance, is set to record "Desperate Housewives" or "Grey's Anatomy," ABC likely knows it.  And those ratings projections will go up, along with ad rates, and finally, the profit in Mickey's pocket.

Last night, I deleted all my ABC timers.  There's a fairly good chance that I'll still watch "Desperate Housewives" when it debuts on the 24th, but I won't give ABC the benefit of knowing that in advance.  And certainly, you should not DVR "The Path to 9/11."

I could go on, but I'll stop there.  I appreciate you making it this far!

If you have questions, I'll hang around the comments!

Originally posted to Rippe on Fri Sep 08, 2006 at 09:07 AM PDT.

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