EXCLUSIVE: In a fall TV season turned upside-down by COVID-19, how does the leading broadcast network by total audience get that audience to tune in?
That’s been the promotional challenge faced by Mike Benson and his troops at CBS as the network reaches an inflection point in its pandemic-adjusted season tonight. The Thursday schedule features return of Young Sheldon and Mom and the debut of comedy B Positive.
Benson joined CBS last year as president and chief marketing officer after previous executive stints at Amazon Studios and Time Warner. One of his first major projects came to fruition last week when the revamped CBS brand identity and five-tone audio tag started hitting the air.
“People want comfort food and a sense of safety,” he told Deadline in an interview about the backdrop of fall TV in 2020. “The idea of football coming back, going back to school, the new fall shows coming — people really love that. So, that coming back is an important emotional message for us, but also knowing that people’s routines have changed. COVID has really disrupted viewing patterns.”
Because of that disruption, he added, the main mission is to “let them know that the content they love is coming back.”
In addition to show-specific materials, the campaign also includes several longer, omnibus spots (watch one above) blending a number of CBS shows into a thematically connected montage.
Seeding the ground in the fall hopefully will enable the marketing effort to strengthen heading into the start of the year, Benson said. The first-quarter slate features premieres of shows like Silence of the Lambs sequel Clarice as well as major events like the Grammys and NFL’s AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LV.
“We’re really trying to make a tonal shift here,” Benson said. “There’s a little bit of sell and excitement, but we also want to not be tone-deaf to what’s gone on, either.” He said the network hopes the timing for B Positive is propitious given research clearly indicating viewers could use some laughs and positivity. The Chuck Lorre-produced show stars Thomas Middleditch as a therapist needing a kidney donor who meets an old high school classmate (Annaleigh Ashford) who impulsively volunteers to donate hers.
In addition to emphasizing certain emotional themes, the promos also lean away from the traditional “Tuesday nights at 9” focus on linear timeslots. “I do believe we’re in transition,” Benson said of the industry’s shift from live linear viewing to time-shifting, adding that his goal is “pivoting this brand from being more of a linear brand into both a brand that you can watch live and you can watch whenever you want.”
The show promos are being showcased across ViacomCBS linear and digital platforms. Digital and social ads are also running in third-party venues, but Benson declined to offer details about the exact pattern and playbook.
Historically, show promo campaigns would see a second wave at midseason and plenty of “holiday finale” and “midseason premiere” stunting. Benson said his view, influenced by his time at Amazon, is that marketers should see TV as a “365-day cycle. This is not just something where there’s a fall season and midseason.”