Monday, November 27, 2006

Media Fragmentation - First Crack

One of the great challenges facing media planners today is media fragmentation; the ongoing proliferation of more and more media vehicles which results in carving up the audiences for them into smaller and smaller numbers. We live in a fragmented media world. For young planners in their 20’s, it may be difficult to truly understand what that fragmentation means. The media environment was already fragmented when they came into the business.

But that wasn’t always the case. Network tv ratings were very high in the early days of television. (Recall that Red Buttons was forced off the air because he got *only* a 40 rating compared to the 60 rating received by I Love Lucy, the show that preceded his.)

Within a few years after the introduction and explosive growth of television to the viewing public, the networks established a dominant position in the production and distribution of tv programs. Initially, individual sponsors funded most of the tv programs which consisted of inexpensive live variety, talk, quiz shows, and sitcoms. But as the public became tired of this fare, the networks turned to Hollywood to spice up the programming. The movie moguls decided to work with television rather than fight it, and in 1955 the first Hollywood-produced filmed Westerns aired on national tv.

The switch to filmed programs and the adoption of one-hour dramatic formats completely altered the relationship between advertisers and the networks. Filmed action-adventure productions required an expertise that only the Hollywood moviemakers seemed to possess. The new 60-minute dramas were vastly more expensive than the comedy, variety and quiz formats advertisers had bankrolled previously, and, as a rule, their producers insisted on firm commitments for a full season's supply of episodes. Such an investment was too big for most single sponsors. Figures for NBC were fairly typical of the total network experience. So, for example, during the 1955-56 season, 40% of NBC's regular primetime entries consisted of programs developed independently by advertisers and their agencies in conjunction with producers, packagers and agents. The remainder were split almost evenly between shows the network itself produced (28%) and programs it purchased from outside suppliers (32%). By the 1961-62 season, these ratios had changed completely. At this point, NBC obtained 68% of its regular series fare by dealing directly with studios, packagers and agents. As before, the network generated a sizable amount of its own programming (25%), but sponsor-supplied shows now filled only 7% of its schedule - down from 40% only six years earlier.

The networks, in fact, ended up wielding so much control over program development and distribution, both in domestic and foreign markets, and in syndication, that the FCC stepped in to reduce the networks’ monopoly position. In 1970, the FCC issued what came to be known as the “Prime Time Access Rule” which reduced the hold the networks had over program suppliers by banning the networks from involvement in the production of primetime entertainment shows and the acquisition of subsidiary rights in any program produced by independent suppliers for national television exposure. The amount of time the networks could program in the evening (i.e. Primetime) was also reduced from 3.5 hours to 3 hours.

As a result, Syndicators filled the new half-hour Prime Access daypart with a host of first-run game shows while independent stations reaped rating bonanzas with reruns of recent off-network fare.

This was only the beginning of an assault on the dominance of the networks. A bigger challenge would come soon from cable and satellite tv.

(to be continued….)

Sources and additional reading:

Ed Papazian, Medium Rare: The Evolution, Workings and Impact of Commercial Television, Media Dynamics, 1989


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