Television advertising is finally on the cusp of long-anticipated change.
The popularity of digital video recorders is making that 60-year-old TV ad standard — the two-minute commercial break — obsolete.
Next season, network officials say TV viewers will start to see fewer traditional commercial breaks and an increase in innovative techniques such as shorter, more frequent ad stops, a heavier reliance on single sponsors and using actors from the shows in the commercials themselves.
All are designed to better engage viewers who increasingly skip through the ad breaks using their DVR remotes.
For the networks, the push to stop talking and really get creative comes amid a slow, recession-stalled “upfront” selling season, the traditional spring-summer period during which they sell most of their commercial time.
“We think it works on many levels for both the advertiser and the channel,” says Bill Abbott, the new head of the Hallmark Channel.
His company has just introduced a commercial format called "fast break." Beginning June 23, viewers of Hallmark’s made-for-TV movies will be spared lengthy commercial breaks. Instead, they will be shown a number of single 30-second spots, all from one advertiser.
Mutual of Omaha is the first to sign on to the new format, which Hallmark officials believe will dramatically increase the level of attention — or, as the ad business calls it, “engagement” — that viewers give commercials.
The thinking is that if viewers only have to wait 30 seconds to get back to a program, they may be less likely to go to the trouble of fast-forwarding through the commercial.
“We tell the viewer that we’ll be getting back to the story in just 30 seconds,” Abbott explains. “It won’t make sense for them to leave. “We’re really pushing this idea hard.”
Hallmark is but one of a number of channels that are rethinking the so-called two-minute, four-commercial ‘pod.’
Outlets including USA Network and MTV are increasingly working with advertisers to create custom-made spots that fill commercial breaks with what are effectively series extensions featuring integrated sponsorship.
Viewers of USA’s “Psych,” for example, are made to feel like they never leave the show, with commercial breaks comprising Kia Motors spots featuring series stars James Roday and Dule Hill in character.
For its part, MTV has recently initiated so-called “podbusters” — co-producing one- and two-minute spots with brands like Pepsi and featuring cast members from shows including “The Hills.”
BBC America will continue with its own “podbusting” execution — which it calls “Inside Look.”
These are short segments embedded inside commercial breaks featuring cast members from series like “Torchwood.” During the segment, the actors talk about such things as the filming of a just-viewed scene, which are teased at the beginning of the break.
According to Andy Donchin, chief investment officer for media-buying shop Carat, the movement towards shorter, more engaging commercials is directly tied to the industry’s recent adoption of Nielsen’s “C3” ratings standard, which essentially measures how many people watched the commercials, not the show itself.
“C3 gave us a level of accountability that we never had before,” Donchin told TheWrap. “And I think the networks are willing to do more these days because we have that high level of accountability.”
Working on behalf of clients like electronics maker Philips and drug giant Pfizer, Donchin made a number of purchases on the broadcast networks last year that involved a single sponsor and limited commercial interruption, buying into programming including CBS’ “60 Minutes” and college football coverage under this format.
He expects to make more of those types of purchases for the upcoming season. “We got great firsthand feedback, so we know it’s working,” Donchin says.
Similarly, Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly said all the broadcast networks will increase their focus on integrated advertising during this year’s upfront. Under Reilly, Fox has engaged in a number of integrated sponsorship campaigns, placing Hyundai into “24,” for example.
And NBC officials say the decision to renew hourlong series “Chuck” was made after Subway agreed to “step up” its level of brand integration in the show next season.
Already a major sponsor of “Chuck,” Subway inadvertently found itself a key player in a “save the series” campaign over the spring, with fans coalescing online, then deciding to patronize the sandwich chain in mass, purchasing footlong subs and declaring their undying love for NBC’s dying show.
“Chuck” producers haven’t said exactly how “Subway” will be introduced into the series, but they expect the chain to be a prominent fixture.
“We do more than people are aware of already on an ongoing basis,” Reilly says.
A number of innovative advertisers and media-buying shops have been pushing for this kind of change for years, and network execs are more eager than ever to supply it.
Fox gave no examples for this story.
Still, innovation is being hindered by a number of big, less innovative advertisers who don’t want to try newer, more efficient commercial executions simply because they haven’t developed ways to measure their effectiveness yet (i.e. metrics).
“At the end of the day, you still have a lot of media buyers who say, ‘I need to purchase so many (gross ratings points),’ because that’s the metric their clients are used to seeing,” Hallmark’s Abbott told TheWrap. “But more and more, we have advertisers who get the vision and what we’re trying to execute.”