Don Draper relaxes next to a bottle of Canadian Club Whisky. Image by Erik Renko via Flickr.

Don Draper relaxes next to a bottle of Canadian Club Whisky. Image by Erik Renko via Flickr.

Traditionally, the American television industry has two key time periods.

The first is in September, with the launch of the new fall seasons. The resolution of cliffhangers from returning series and the launch of new shows make this the most wonderful time of the year for TV fanatics.

The second comes in the spring with pilot season, and the networks’ upfront presentations announcing their new and returning series.

This is the time for advertisers to target viewers and for couch potatoes to mark their calendars and plot out their DVR schedules.

But while the network cycle of a television season stretching from September to May was a longstanding constant for advertisers and viewers, the tides have changed.

With the rise of cable networks, there are more opportunities than ever for brands to reach viewers throughout the year. The key is finding content that’s the right fit for the brand and, more importantly, its desired audience.

After The Sopranos

After premium cable network HBO won record ratings and began racking up the awards in the late 1990s and early 2000s with series like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, the basic cable networks took note and began producing their own original programming.

While HBO is subscription based, basic cable networks like TNT, TBS and FX are advertiser supported, so they were forced to look for alternative ways to generate revenue.

A Maserati in the background of a Soprano's scene.

While HBO is a subscription based network, product placement does occur. Here a Maserati is prominently displayed, and discussed, in a scene from The Sopranos.

These networks followed the HBO model of having shorter seasons with fewer episodes than a standard network series, allowing writers to craft tighter storylines. And instead of launching them all in September, the shows would be staggered throughout the year.

Because basic cable networks have smaller expected audiences than the broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox), they can greenlight series that aren’t as broad in concept or as wide-reaching in terms of audience demographics, allowing more creative flexibility.

That means series can be aimed at more sophisticated, affluent and influential viewers. The kind of audience that’s particularly attractive to advertisers.

The Mad Men effect

One of the most successful basic cable series, Mad Men, premiered in July, 2007. The unconventional timing allowed AMC to sync the show’s first season finale with the beginning of the traditional fall TV season, a move that got Mad Men attention just as the series was finding its voice.

Mad Men’s success in ratings, in critical acclaim, and in reaching a highly valued demographic led to several unique advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

For its second season, AMC signed BMW on as Mad Men’s exclusive premiere sponsor and series partner. AMC highlighted BMW through its multiplatform marketing initiatives, on air and online, and BMW received enhanced exposure throughout the first episode.

To create buzz for the following season, Vanity Fair published an editorial package featuring series stars Jon Hamm and January Jones, including a five-page pictorial featuring BMW cars.

A BMW Mad Men ad.

A BMW ad in the style of Mad Men.

In season four, when the fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency landed the Pond’s cold cream account, parent company Unilever signed on for a season-long sponsorship and we got to see Don Draper and crew crafting commercials for the iconic brand.

And with Mad Men’s sixth and penultimate season beginning next week, Banana Republic has launched its fifth Mad Men collection of 1960s-inspired clothing.

Unilever has parntered with Mad Men.

Unilever has partnered with Mad Men for a season-long sponsorship. The brand has created ads, including the Dove ad pictured above, that align with the Mad Men brand.

The never-ending ad season

Walking Dead used the new schedule to beat out its competitors.

The Walking Dead used the new season scheduling to beat out its competitors.

With basic cable reaching broadcast network numbers but breaking the traditional cycle, advertisers need to rethink their television buying strategies.

In 2010, just three years after the premiere of Mad Men, AMC launched The Walking Dead, a zombie drama series based on a series of graphic novels. Reaching 5.35 million viewers, it was the most-watched basic cable premiere of all time.

This year, the ratings for Dead’s third season have done the unthinkable by surpassing network powerhouses such as The Big Bang Theory, American Idol and The Voice among viewers 18 to 49.

Even more distressing for the broadcast networks is that a new episode of The Talking Dead, AMC’s spinoff chat show about The Walking Dead, drew 2.8 million viewers in February – beating NBC not just for that night, but for all of February.

With upfront season starting early and broadcast networks following cable’s lead and launching more new shows in winter and summer, life has gotten a lot more complicated for TV ad buyers. But viewers can rejoice that there will almost always be something new to watch on television.