Traditionally the dog days of summer are the time when national advertisers wind down their summer campaigns on the three networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC - and television screens begin to light up with commercials promoting the new lineup of network shows. But this year has been different.
The number of network promos as well as the shrill tone and competitiveness of some of these spots have been surprising many advertising observers. Some media experts attribute the intensity of these campaigns to the networks' concern over the loss of viewers to pay TV and other new electronic home-entertainment alternatives. Others wonder if the pace of these promos won't do more harm than good, driving away prospective viewers rather than attracting them.
NBC, No. 3 in prime-time ratings, is airing a full array of hard-hitting promos that disparage the other two networks' programs. For example, there's a particularly combative spot for a new NBC program, ''Manimal'' attacking the popular CBS Friday offering ''Dallas'' which it's slated to appear opposite. Another NBC promo strikes out at ABC's ''Love Boat'' while others attack ABC and CBS simultaneously.
Referring to the fall tune-in campaign, a spokesman for NBC described it as being divided into three parts. The first consists of generic promos featuring the ''Be there'' theme. The competitive spots appear in the second, or teaser, phase. In September, the third part promotes the premieres of new programs. Although the network declined to discuss details, it has been estimated that NBC will air as many as 750 promos before the campaign is completed for an air-time commercial value of $1.5 million or more.
ABC has counterattacked with a promo that takes the fierce Mr. T character of NBC's popular ''A Team'' and shrinks him down to a manageable midget. But for the most part ABC, in neck-to-neck competition with NBC for second place in nighttime viewers, is content to go with a calmer approach featuring ''That special feeling'' theme.
''Our philosophy is to sell our network and our shows and not to knock our competitors,'' says Roy Polevoy, ABC vice-president for on-air promotion. ''We don't think negative advertising helps anyone. We'll generate audience on what we've got to offer.''
Steve Sohmer, senior vice-president for entertainment at NBC, defended his network's aggressive promotion campaign in a panel discussion on the ''Today'' show. ''We are trying to find new ways to intrigue the public about the shows on NBC, trying to do it with wit and style and a little touch of humor.'' When asked if NBC wasn't breaking the rules, Mr. Sohmer replied, ''I don't think there are any written rules about this sort of thing . . . as long as it's done in the right way with a positive upbeat and a glint and gleam in one's eye, I think it's fine.''
Another panelist, Jerry Della Femina, chairman of the Della Femina, Travisano & Partners advertising agency, seemed to support Mr. Sohmer's view. ''People do understand that there are three networks. . . . I mean the world knows that they're out there, so poking fun at them is just great.''
''NBC has been No. 3 for a while and they've lost a lot of affiliates,'' says Hal Katz, senior vice-president of Vitt Media International, an independant media buying service. ''But they're not going to regain position based on the aggressiveness of their promos. Only the appeal of their programming will help them.''
Together, the networks have been talking about turning the 30-second spot they sell to advertisers into two 15-second spots for related products and increasing the number of commercials they allow during prime time, thereby adding to the commercial clutter which can drive viewers away.
''My concern would be if the networks were cutting back on program time to run their promos,'' says Jack Otter, director of programming for SSC&B, a large international advertising agency. ''Otherwise, I think that NBC's fall promotion represents a two-pronged attack aimed at taking the audience away from its competitors and attracting viewers back from pay TV.''
The CBS network, which regained its No. 1 prime time position four years ago, can afford to take the high road. Earlier this year the network took the unusual step of asking the Ogilvy & Mather agency to help execute its fall campaign. For its fall tune-in advertising CBS is using the theme, ''We've got the touch.''
Morton J. Pollack, vice-president for advertising and promotion for CBS Entertainment, makes this observation about the network promos war, ''Competitive advertising can work when you're in a lesser position. For example , many soft drinks compare themselves to Coca-Cola while Coke is content to simply say 'Coke is it.' We do our promos in the most positive way we can. It just wouldn't make good advertising sense for a leader like CBS to knock the competition.''