The War for Your Attention
Ever since `Jaws,' media sharks have been honing tools to make you look, remember, and buy
BOSTON — IN a hundred ways, some subtle and some obnoxious, book publishers and movie and television producers are imploring you to sit up and pay attention. In an increasingly competitive cultural marketplace, producers and publishers have little time, but they're under a lot of pressure to turn a profit. So they want you to pay attention - now.
``The need to catch the viewer's attention or interest in what's increasingly a cluttered environment is growing,'' says Chad F. Hoffman, executive vice-president at Hearst Entertainment. Mr. Hoffman is a television producer who helped create ``thirtysomething'' and ``China Beach,'' but what he says applies to film and publishing, too.
Hollywood movie producers, for example, have to think as hard about the promotion and timing of a film's opening as they do about making a good movie. A major Hollywood release has a single weekend - ``the blink of an eye,'' says one movie producer - to do well or begin to fade.
Even smaller specialty films feel the pressure. ``You only have a little time on each film because other pictures are waiting to grab the spotlight,'' Russell Schwartz, executive vice-president at Miramax Films, recently told the entertainment trade paper Variety.
New York book publishers must try desperately to convince the producers of daytime talk shows to put authors on the air. The success of a commercial non-fiction book weighs in large part on whether the people who work with Oprah, Phil, and Geraldo see a show in it.
``If you get a good shot on one of those shows,'' says Corlies M. Smith, editor-in-chief at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., ``your chances of selling a lot of books are very good indeed.'' The talk-show producers, he says, are ``enormously powerful people'' for the book industry.
Mr. Smith observes that the books that make it onto ``The Oprah Winfrey Show'' and into chain bookstores aren't necessarily the best books. It's often quite the reverse - the ``terrible stuff,'' he says. Nowadays success isn't often achieved because critics have praised a book; it's achieved ``by pronouncing something a success.''
In the bi-coastal world of television production, Nielsen Media Research, which tracks television viewership, has refined its art so much that it can tell a network executive how many viewers switched the channel each half minute. That means that a developing subplot doesn't get time to mature. It's scrapped and soon replaced with something that doesn't show a dip on the minute-by-minute analysis.
In the case of ``Cop Rock,'' an unusual series aired briefly on ABC this fall that combined police drama with musical numbers, the analysis indicated that people were tuning out as each song started. Producer Steven Bochco refused to drop the music, and ``Cop Rock'' was canceled.
The networks are ``getting a quicker and quicker trigger,'' says independent television producer Steven Cannell, the creator of shows like ``The A-Team,'' ``The Rockford Files,'' and ``Hunter.'' ``Shows are getting shot down very quickly now.''
The reasons for this growing pressure to succeed fast and the ensuing emphasis on marketing vary slightly in the book, movie, and television industries. Publishers are faced with a declining readership and a more competitive, higher-priced market for proven authors, making them more concerned with their bottom lines.
Network television has been fundamentally changed by the advent of cable and home video-cassette recorders, forcing the networks to compete more aggressively for a smaller pool of advertising dollars.
In Hollywood, says a marketing executive at a major studio who wouldn't speak for attribution, it all goes back to the movie ``Jaws,'' which opened on 700 screens in the summer of 1975 and went on to make $100 million. After that, says this executive, ``everybody got greedy.'' As budgets were inflated in search of the next blockbuster, a lot more money began to ride on each attempt. Now ``a miss or a non-hit ... hurts a lot more,'' he adds.
The press of time forces producers and publishers to make the most of their windows of opportunity: the opening weekend for movies, the first few airings for television shows, and a few weeks for new books.
Behind the scenes at ``WIOU,'' a new drama on CBS about the news staff of a local television station, the producers are buying advertising time on cable-TV to promote the show. Usually the network takes responsibility for promotion, but ``WIOU's'' co-producer, Orion Television Entertainment, is spending ``in the low six figures'' to advertise the show on Lifetime Network Television, Cable News Network, and other channels, according to Orion vice-president Robert Oswaks.
That compares with the ``several million dollars'' that Mr. Oswaks says CBS is spending to promote the show. Orion's cable buy, he says, shows the network that the producers ``are confident and doing everything in our powers to support the show.''
The producers of the ABC series ``Twin Peaks'' shot the pilot on film instead of video and were able to show it at film festivals. They also hired a public-relations firm for the show seven or eight months ahead of the pilot's air date. These efforts created a ``buzz'' about the show that in part convinced the network to run the pilot and people to watch it, says Michael Saltzman, one of the PR consultants involved.
Movie studios have long been using marketing techniques more subtle than ``You'll-die-if-you-don't-see-this-movie'' print and television ads. To name a few: commercial tie-ins with toy companies and fast-food chains, direct mail campaigns, and toll telephone numbers where fans hear messages from a particular film's stars or characters.
Publishing houses with a potential fiction best-seller on their hands, says Harcourt editor Smith, now effectively offer large discounts to chain bookstores like Crown Books or B. Dalton Bookseller. The ensuing stacks of books in the windows of mall book shops create an image for the book. ``If they're enough of them piled around, it must be successful,'' is the message, says Smith - and that message sells books.
Producer Harry Gittes, whose independent 1989 film ``Breaking In'' faded fast in spite of strong critical praise, says the less expensive, more artistic movies suffer most in the current climate. Only the big studio films can withstand a less-than-stellar first weekend.
Smaller films ``don't have the dough to stay at the [box office] window,'' says Mr. Gittes. ``There's less patience for creativity - the stakes are too high.''
The anonymous studio executive agrees that high-quality or specialty films are suffering. Mass appeal ``requires the broadening of all notions,'' he says. Why produce a picture with a controversial theme in an unusual format when you can put Mel Gibson ``in a buddy-cops movie?''
At least in the television business, one major producer sees reason for optimism. Former NBC president Grant Tinker, who now heads his own production company, says the networks in the late 1980s ``began to act in an almost manic fashion,'' canceling shows at the earliest signs of failure. But ``right now,'' he adds, ``the networks are having so much trouble making a buck ... they are going to be ... inclined to stay with shows, because it's cheaper.''