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'E.T.' . . . Call Sears : Giant Retailer Uses Giant Film to Ring in Holiday Ratings, Shoppers


If Sears, Roebuck & Co. could plan your Thanksgiving holiday, it would probably go something like this: After the traditional turkey feast on Thursday, you would gather your kids around the television set at 8 p.m. to watch the newly created "Sears Family Theater" on CBS, featuring the television premiere of Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic, "E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial."

Then on Friday, you would pack up your children and head to any one of 868 Sears stores across the nation to receive a free "E.T." poster and have the kids' photo taken in front of a panoramic, moon-filled sky with a replica of E.T. And as long as you're there, you would pick up the perfect holiday gift for the kids: a low-price videocassette of "E.T.," available only at Sears.

Oh, and then you would drop a bundle of money buying Christmas presents throughout the rest of the store.

All this renewed "E.T."-mania is the result of a reported $40-million gamble Sears made with MCA/Universal in September. The landmark deal gave Sears exclusive television and video rights to "E.T.," the highest-grossing film and top-selling video title of all time, for years to come--although neither party will specify just how long that is.

"This means Sears has planted their flag squarely in the heart of Hollywood," said David Weitzner, executive vice president of marketing for MCA.

Sears has been suffering through several years of decline in its retail operations. For the fourth quarter of 1990, which includes the important Christmas shopping season, Sears profits dropped to a reported $378.8 million, from $602.1 million a year earlier.

So it's no coincidence that Thursday night's broadcast of "E.T." touches down on the eve of what retail analysts report to be the heaviest shopping day of the year, when millions of Sears credit card-carrying Americans get a jump on Christmas shopping.

That's why the Chicago-based retail chain hired the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather to create a special series of commercials that will stress traditional values throughout the 2 1/2-hour "E.T." telecast to draw shoppers into Sears stores. That's also why "E.T." will be televised in Canada, where Sears operates numerous retail outlets, and why a dubbed version of "E.T." will be broadcast nationally and in Mexico on Friday on the Spanish-language television network Telemundo, to reach Sears' many Latino shoppers.

"We're always on the look to find different ways, inclusive ways, to reach the consumer," said Scott Harding, national manager of advertising for Sears. "We've been looking at our Thanksgiving time frame for some years, at how we can make a more meaningful impact, since we have large shopping days following the holiday."

The new "Sears Family Theater" will air periodically around major holidays and present a variety of family-oriented entertainment, Harding said. To start off, Sears executives believe they obtained the perfect holiday film in "E.T.," with the little alien's heart-light glowing bittersweet messages of love and family. There's even E.T.'s gentle reminder to "Phone home."

MCA's Weitzner said that the Thanksgiving air date is what convinced Spielberg to relinquish the TV rights to his cherished film, which grossed a record $400 million in the United States and sold an unrivaled 14 million videocassettes. "Steven's position was born of his desire to present 'E.T.' on Thanksgiving. He sees the presentation as a diamond in the most beautiful of settings," Weitzner said.

The only way for Sears to guarantee that "E.T." would air on Thanksgiving was to arrange a deal granting the company proprietary rights. By offering one of the networks pre-sold advertising on a movie with the notoriety of "E.T.," Sears was in a good bargaining position to dictate the film's time slot. Normally, the situation is reversed, with a network or cable channel purchasing broadcast rights and selling the time to advertisers.

In many ways, the Sears deal is a throwback to the old days of television when sponsors regularly produced programming and assumed the risks: few viewers, few shoppers. In this case, Sears approached CBS with "E.T." and will pay the network an estimated $2 million to $3 million for 12 minutes worth of advertising time. The deal is for one broadcast only; if "E.T." does poorly on CBS, Sears is free next year to shop its annual "E.T." broadcast to another network.

Scheduling "E.T." on Thursday is also a gamble for Sears because ratings traditionally take a dive on Thanksgiving night, when millions of viewers turn off their sets to spend time with their families.

"There's obviously an audience of TV viewers on Thanksgiving," argued Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of programming for CBS. "For example, on Thanksgiving Day, football games post very high ratings. So the question isn't whether there are audiences on Thanksgiving. The question is what can you give those audiences to bring them together in front of their television sets?"

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