Does a Network Need a Brand?


Well, does it?

I asked myself that question when reading this post by Kay Reindl at Seriocity, where she argues among other things that cable networks are better at broadcast networks these days at branding themselves: “When I look at USA, I get exactly who they are and what they’re aiming for. When I look at NBC, I gotta say, I’m a little confused.”

It’s often said today that “branding” is less important than it used to be, because in the age of infinite channels and PVR and online viewing, people don’t watch networks, they watch shows. I sometimes think that’s true, and then again sometimes I don’t. The idea that people watch only individual shows and don’t care what network they’re on is not really consistent with the way people consume other forms of entertainment. People have their favourite websites to check each day (this one, maybe?), their favourite magazines to read each week (a-hem!) their favourite places to shop. Why wouldn’t at least some people have a favourite network? It doesn’t mean they’ll watch nothing but that network, any more than they’ll shop only at their favourite store. But it does make sense that, if they’ve seen a lot of shows that speak to them on one particular network, they’ll be inclined to turn that network on and see what they’ve got. Doesn’t mean they’ll like it. But just getting them to tune in is important.

You could argue that the vast number of channels has actually made it more necessary for broadcast networks to brand themselves. With only three networks, a network seemed less like a single self-contained entity and more like a big repository of TV shows, one of three. But now everybody has their own favourite specialized channels, and that means we’re in the habit of thinking of a television channel as something with a clearly defined purpose and type of programming. To keep up with this new way of thinking, a network needs to give itself at least some kind of identity, just to tell people: hey, watch us first. We’ve got the kind of stuff you like.

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Does a Network Need a Brand?

  1. I think branding is absolutely important when selling their wares to advertisers and when programming to ensure good lead-ins, etc. But I don’t think branding matters much to the audience for broadcast networks except in a way no network in their right mind would want to cultivate: a network with a negative brand image can get a lot of mileage out of a good show that stands out from their usual dreck (though that’s a detriment to providing a good lead-in, of course).

    Ali LeRoi said it about Everybody Hates Chris – I can’t remember the exact quote, but he said that for UPN at the time, it was like a sophisticated woman coming out of a whorehouse. As a quality show on a network not known for quality, it got more attention in the media and made the network want to hang onto it. Rob Thomas said something similar, though less colourful, about Veronica Mars. I think 24 and House benefited from FOX’s less-than-stellar reputation at the time too.

    But you could pump an infinite amount of money and effort into telling me that FOX is now the home of intelligent escapism and it’s not going to sell me any more on The Moment of Truth when I’m programming my PVR or browsing Hulu (if that were an option for Canadians).

  2. I think the successes of CBS, Fox and ABC mostly stem from their abilities to brand themselves. CBS is certainly the “Watch solid shows that won’t confuse you” network (which may be why HIMYM always struggled there — while you can just drop in every so often, it’s not as satisfying). ABC is the “Light frothy fun and occasionally Lost” network. Fox doesn’t really have a brand anymore, but I guess it could say, “We have American Idol so screw you!”

    NBC really has no idea what it is (it kind of looked like it was going to brand itself as the network for fans of cult and quality TV when Reilly was there, but then Silverman came in and messed that up; it’s too bad, as there’s probably room for this sort of a network in today’s smaller, more spread-out audience), and the less said about The CW, the better.

    I’ve always thought that network branding was getting MORE, not LESS important because the kinds of people who watch shows, not networks, are more likely to DVR the show or download it or something. The actual viewers the advertisers are concerned about are the ones like my grandma, who just turns it to channel 11 because the odds are good the show will be something she will like.

    (Still, not a one of these networks is as well-branded as even, say, The WB.)

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