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TV network brands: taking a hit from streaming?

For stakeholders in the television ecosystem, the impact of streaming viewing is the mystery of the year – probably the decade. Of course, their biggest concern is streaming’s effect on so-called “regular” TV viewing and TV networks. But the streaming phenomenon is also poised to transform advertising and media planning, program promotion, windowing of content, and licensing agreements.

A crucial but potentially overlooked issue is the impact of streaming on the brand equity of a television network: Do streaming viewers have the same relationship with the network that originated the program they are watching as viewers who only watch on “regular” TV? Recent GfK research established that viewers still are pretty good at matching programs watched with the networks that created them; but making that association does not necessarily mean a good brand relationship with the network.

Networks have invested a lot in establishing and promoting their brands. While some pundits insist that few viewers care about networks anymore – “they watch programs, not networks” – our study shows that this is a vast oversimplification. Many networks do have strong awareness and loyalty among the viewing public; for instance, most people know that they are getting something different from CBS compared with FOX, or from History compared with Discovery.

From my perspective, there should be no reason why the value of network brand image should decrease in today’s evolving TV/video marketplace. Indeed, we see that aggregators are becoming increasingly important in delivering video content – and networks are the original video aggregators. Whether viewers access content over a regular TV channel, a TV Everywhere service, or something like Hulu, the network is still an important differentiator for viewers to consider. The network can signal important things like specialization in type of content, quality of production, or viewpoint.

Networks that will have the roughest journey in these roiling seas will be those that have not established a strong brand image. Going off-brand in pursuit of audience, or just having a weak hodgepodge of programming, did not help struggling networks in the “old” TV world and will be a growing burden in the “new” one. This goes not just for the networks’ potential audiences, but also their digital and advertiser partners.

Our most recent work explores the impact, if any, that making programming available online has on a TV network’s brand. Whether or not to have content online is a moot point – the audience clearly demands it; but understanding the potential fallout (or benefit) to the brand is important.

We studied how the perception of a network brand differed between those who watch a network or its programs only on regular TV (TV-Only) and those who watch it using streaming (Streamers). Among the selected networks we examined, the preponderance of evidence shows that, on the whole, there is no negative impact from streaming. The brand metrics for a particular network are essentially the same, or similar, for its TV-Only viewers compared with its Streamers.

Overall, these results clearly indicate that there is little downside to a network’s brand from allowing its content to be streamed. On the flip side, there is also little upside in brand metrics to be seen; but in this situation, it can be said that simply maintaining the status quo is a victory. And other attitudes we explored indicate that streaming’s rising tide may be lifting all boats by extending total viewing time and broadening sampling of content

As we have mentioned to our clients for the last couple of years, the “C” word – cannibalization – should not be in anyone’s vocabulary anymore. The concept of television as a continuum from live linear to on-demand digital is an established fact, and stakeholders need to understand and leverage its advantages to their entire portfolio while mitigating its downsides. In the case of brand equity, our results indicate that concern about its impact can be tabled – at least for now.

David Tice is Senior Vice President in GfK’s Brand and Customer Experience practice and director of The Home Technology Monitor™ report series.

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