For more than three decades, the 30-second spot has been the standard unit of TV advertising, while in recent years 15-second spots have become a favorite alternative. But as the medium has fragmented, and devices like the digital video recorder have made it easier to skip ads, there's been a growing interest in shorter-length commercials.
Up to now, the major networks have resisted client requests for shorter units, though syndicators and some cable networks have been willing to sell 5- and 10-second spots. That hesitation stems from the networks' fear of adding to the number of commercials already cluttering the airwaves.
But last week, Fox confirmed that it is talking to a handful of clients about the purchase of 5-second ads that would air at the end of commercial pods. Fox is not only the first of the major networks to sell the smaller spots, but it is also breaking tradition by selling specific positions (the networks tend to avoid doing so because the first and last are considered the most-viewed slots, so advertisers get them on a rotating basis). Fox first agreed to do so in December, when Interpublic Group's Initiative bought 5-second units for client AOL. Now other advertisers want similar arrangements.
The appeal of these 5-second spots for the advertisers is not just to break through clutter, but to boost awareness of their 30-second spots in the same pods.
John Nesvig, president, advertising sales at Fox, confirmed talks with other clients, but stressed there's a limit to how much flexibility the network will offer in terms of spot length and the reconfiguring of pods. "We want to try things to help advertisers have more impact, but we certainly don't want to take away impact from other commercials," he said. A 5-second ad at the end of a pod won't disturb the regular rotation of other ads, but a 10-second spot would be disruptive, so he won't allow it, he added.
The other major networks rejected AOL's pitch when Initiative brought it to them. "This was seen as the opening of the floodgates to multiple lengths that would really affect the way they do business and make it much harder," from an inventory trafficking and formatting standpoint, said Alan Cohen, evp, Initiative Innovations, who came up with the 5-second spot idea for AOL. But as more clients demand innovation in the way ads are presented, all the networks will become more open-minded to new ideas, he suggested. Initiative is so sure it's come up with a game-changer that it is trademarking the term "pod puncher" to describe the purchase of a 30-second ad in combination with a 5-second at the end of the same pod.
Interest in alternative-length spots is only going to grow, ad executives said. "There is definitely a growing appetite for shorter-length spots in specific areas," said Ed Gentner, svp, group director of national broadcast for Publicis Groupe's MediaVest. That's true of traditional media and also emerging media, such as broadband and wireless, where Gentner said "users don't have the appetite to sit through longer-length commercials."
It's particularly true for syndication, where interest in 10-second spots has grown demonstrably in the last three years, and now accounts for 8 percent of all spot sales in the medium, up from less than 1 percent of all spots three years ago, according to TNS Media Intelligence. With the burgeoning growth of 10s, coupled with continued interest in 15s, the number of 30-second units sold in syndication has slipped to just 48 percent of all ads sold in the medium for the year ended Oct. 31, 2005 (the latest 12-month period available). It's the first time that 30-second units have accounted for less than half of the annual ad volume of any TV medium since the 30-second became the standard ad unit back in the '70s, the TNS data show.
The 10-second units in syndication are particularly attractive because they are cost-efficient and are often sold in standalone units designed for advertisers whose spot buys help pay for the closed-captioning of the show they're in. Such spots start with the voiceover, "Closed captioning brought to you by..." followed by the name of the sponsor and then the 10-second spot.
Kal Leibowitz, CEO of KSL Media, predicted that 10s could be a $1 billion business in five years, up from the current estimate of $250 million a year. KSL has created a separate unit, TV10s, which specializes in 10-second spot sales. "Tens make a lot more sense in some ways," he said. "They cost a fraction of what 15s cost, but they have the feel of a 15."
Warner Bros. Entertainment spends a significant portion of its DVD syndication budget on 10s, said Eric Geiger, account director at Grey Entertainment, who plans and buys media for Warner Bros' DVD unit. "It's a way to get our ad dollars to work harder for us," he said. Because the 10s are relatively inexpensive, "you can build frequency with multiple ads for a fraction of the cost." But the message has to be quick and to the point, he said. "In our case, the product is already known due to the marketing of the film [when released in theaters]. Our message is, it's out on DVD; buy it."
Geiger said Warner uses "cut-down versions" of 15-second ads for its 10-second commercials. "But you would never know it—that's the beauty of it."