FLASH - Lightning strikes the CBS eye! But ABC is "Still the One," and NBC says people are more "aware" of its new fall shows than they are of the competition's.
This is all part of the annual pre-ritual rite known as promotion of the new TV season, and if at times it seems an abrasive annoyance in a medium already chock full of calculated annoyances, it's not a game the networks play flippantly. They'll each invest about $15 million to ballyhoo their own wares this season, with around $3 million of that sunk into splashola for the onset of the new season.
And oh what fun is in store for us. Every show a gem, we're told, every comedy a laugh-riot, every drama momentous, and everything vaguely familiar, new or not. Last year networks were singing the praises of such neutron bombs as "Ball Four," "The Quest" and "Mr. T and Tina."
But who remembers last year's flops in a medium where 20 minutes' worth of remembrance by viewers is considered "total recall" It's the job of the network promotion departments to rally us into giddy expectation no matter how unrealistic it may be to expect a fall fiesta.
Every year, it seems, the starting gun for the hype season, which paves the way for the season itself, goes off earlier. But ABC and NBC both insist that their July 4 starting dates this year were the same as in previous years. CBS says it waited until July 15. They're all going full blaze now, moving into the final weeks before blast-off - the race to the race.
"The other networks outspent us on promotion last year," insists Symon Cowles, vice president for "creative services" at promotion-mad ABC. While the total number of spots hasn't gone up for ABC this season, Cowles says, "We've improved our capability of fresh spots, so that we have a much greater selection - 50 per cent greater than last year."
ABC has the jazziest ads - electrographics, flashy editing, and a jingle adapted from "You're Still the One," a hit record by the group Orleans. How much did ABC have to pay to change that ditty to "We're Still the One?" Cowles won't say. "If I told you, then next year I'd have to pay more."
CBS, traditionally the best-looking network as far as its own logos and show-boosting blurbs go, has once more come up with a new variation for its illustrious eye. Last year the orb ignited like a cycloptic firework. This year lightning strikes it to indicate the electric excitement awaiting us in the new season.
Lou Dorfsman, 30 years with CBS, is the dean of network imagery, and has consistently produced the most widely admired network "look." He says he never tires of playing around with the CBS trademark eye. "I thoroughly enjoy it." So what will he do next year - dip it in butter? "Uh, chicken fat, maybe," Dorfsman says. "How about a little Murine?"
Beneath this surface joviality lies a cunning strategist. This year CBS, still reeling from its topple off the top at the hands of ABC, is pulling out all the promotional stops. "Two years ago, we could say, 'Eighteen years in a row, No. 1,'" Dorfsman recalls nostalgically. "Needless to say, I ran out of number ones after awhile."
As part of the counterattack, CBS will appeal not only to the viewer's lust for edifying divertisements but to something deeper still: greed. The network has shelled out $1 million for an eleven-page insert in the upcoming Fall Preview issue of TV Guide to herald a viewer sweepstakes with $250,000 in prizes.
In addition, CBS has supplied co-operating shopping mails in top TV markets with a 50-minute film presentation extolling the new season. The films will roll continuously in those consumer spas during the shopping weekend of Sept. 17-18. Dorfsman speaks with anticipatory rapture of the "monster traffic pattern" of shoppers who'll be exposed to his tidings of great joy. "It's costing us a lot of bread, but I think it'll be worth it."
He has also designed and produced promo footage for all the CBS affiliates to use for their own campaigns, visually consistent with the CBS ads and thus bolstering a united front. The current theme, "Something's in the Air," gives way on premier day to "It's A Whole New Thing," and a whole new barrage.
NBC has no fancy computer animation, no jingle and, for the first time in years, not even a slogan. "Slogans are instantly forgotten," scoffs promotion director Gerald Rowe."They're essentially smoke, wasted time. You're just promoting the network instead of the program."
Instead, NBC's array of tantalizing come-on's includes five different star profiles that contain not scenes from new shows but candid peeps into the alleged private lives of their stars. These private lives are very, very wholesome. Tony Roberts of "Rosetti and Ryan" romps merrily around the city tickling the dickens out of everybody. Rod Taylor of "The Oregon Trail" cuddles his loved ones. What red-blooded American wouldn't feel safe inviting such chaps into the living room?
It may sound corny - well, it is corny - but it appears to be working."We monitor the other networks periodically to see wht they're doing," says Rowe. "At this time last year, we took a survey and found that that more people were aware of ABC's new shows than ours. Well, this year we took the same survey and I just found out that more people are aware of our new shows."
So maybe CBS will have to add a few more thousand bucks to the jackpot kitty. And perhaps ABC an induce Alex Haley to say that every new show on the network is in the great tradition of "Roots."
Jaded viewers may think all the network energy that goes into promotion is much ado about precious little, considering that history tells us most new shows will fail anyway. But remember, we're talking big money here. Network profits were up last year by almost 42 per cent over 1975, with total revenues tipping the scales at $2.1 billion. ABC didn't just get a boost in self-esteem by winning the season; it also get an estimated $80 million in additional profits.
And it should be kept in mind that all this spendind and maneuvering and jockeying for position is, of course, an effort to woo us, the almighty viewers, and that is sort of flattering, in a way. They're still having fun, but we're still the one.