CBS: Classic Super Bowl Coverage, at a Price
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Every year, in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl, we learn whose ads passed network muster and whose didn't. This year, CBS generated lively debate by green-lighting Focus on the Family's pro-life spot, while rejecting an ad from gay dating site ManCrunch.com. Much has already been written about CBS's implied endorsement of one "life choice" over another. But few question why slow-to-evolve CBS failed to capture a fraction of the value its platform created for either organization.
With each passing Super Bowl, the networks prove just how out of touch they are by continuing to view their role solely as event organizer and advertising arbiter. Having created (over decades) these four precious hours of attention, they program only within its borders, while savvier organizations use social media strategies and manufactured controversy to leverage, extend, or outright manipulate Super Bowl for exponentially higher value.
PETA set the bar last year with its sexy veggies spot, clearly designed for rejection and quick viral distribution. ManCrunch likely employed the same strategy this year, earning precious awareness while side-stepping the seven figure price tag. Pepsi's announcement that they would not advertise on the world's biggest stage didn't cost them a penny, but got pundits and Twitterati talking. Even Focus on the Family, who paid CBS its $3 million, earned priceless terrabytes of pre-game press from the mini-controversy that played out across blogs and online media. (Meanwhile Planned Parenthood's response to Tim Tebow has been viewed on YouTube more than 106,000 times in a matter of two days). This press was price-less for CBS, who captured no value from the debate, even as Google's Adsense, and the many blogs and web forums it serves, profited.
Perhaps, as anthropologist Grant McCracken argues in his latest book, CBS and other networks would benefit from a Chief Culture Officer who understands the network's role is programming meaning, not just airtime. Rather than making decisions based on maximizing the value of those four hours each year, a CCO would have recognized the market shift toward cause and advocacy years ago, and the need to extend the platform for viewers who "tune in" online weeks before and after the game to engage in the cultural commentary it sparks. Such an officer would view her role not just as gatekeeper to the eyes and ears of Super Bowl viewers, but as host to the cultural conversations networks presently concede to the myriad forums and blogs that have sprung up to fill the vacuum. In a nutshell, a CCO would evolve Super Bowl coverage in ways network brass has not.
The numbers support such a move. According to Nielsen, 106 million viewers watched Super Bowl 44, setting an all-time viewership record. But a survey by ad agency Venables Bell & Partners found that more than 40 million Super Bowl viewers planned to watch the ads online, too, and 26% indicated they would share their favorite ads via e-mail and social networking sites. Certainly viewer engagement increases as it migrates from broadcast to social media, and those who enable such engagement can command a premium.
Networks would be well advised to consider a strategy that views the broadcast as just one of a number of channels for official Super Bowl content. One potential model: the mix of "approved" spots and sport are broadcast as mass entertainment, and a CBS-branded, ad-sponsored online channel for all Super Bowl ad submissions, commentary and debate. A multi-channel approach serves a wider mix of advertisers and consumers by providing a venue for discussing everything from football to our evolving cultural values, while enabling the network to capture additional revenue beyond Super Bowl ad sales.
Most importantly, CBS and its competitors protect their brand capital by evolving from judge deciding which point of view is "fit to air," to diplomat providing a second official channel for groups with varied agendas to engage in fair and open dialogue.