NEW YORK An episode of According to Jim features the characters sitting in the family living room watching TV. The shot narrows to the TV set, on which a commercial begins to run. A few seconds in, the ad grows to fill the entire shot, and presto, before the viewer realizes it, without any musical swells or fading to black, he's watching a commercial.
This scenario, presented to marketers and agency executives last week at a closed ABC meeting in Burbank, Calif., is just one production technique the net could use next season in hopes of keeping people from skipping the commercials. The network showed several examples of the techniques it's considering, including one that smooths the transition the other way, from an ad to a TV show. In the clip, a car commercial ended by focusing on a computer screen on which the next scene of the program began to unfold. It, too, eventually filled the TV screen without musical cues, a fade or even a quick network or local promotion—all traditional tip-offs that the program is about to resume. The not-so-subtle message to the viewer: Pay close attention or miss part of the show.
Executives at the meeting said that ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson stressed that the ideas were still a work in progress. But the fact that the network showed anything at all highlights the growing pressures on broadcast and cable networks to come up with more effective techniques for delivering retentive audiences as the switch to commercial ratings looms.
Mike Shaw, president of ABC Sales, said the network's prime-time retention of viewers through commercials is 96 percent. But in the age of commercial ratings, he said, everyone has to strive to do better. "Commercial ratings are going to foster a reordering of how you buy TV based on who you think is watching your spots," he said.
ABC is just one of several networks that has shared its plans recently with marketing and agency executives to get more viewers to do less ad skipping next season.
The CW Network confirmed last week that it would be expanding its "content wrap" segments, introduced in the fourth quarter of last year. In fact, the network has developed a pilot for a possible half-hour entertainment and lifestyle show, CW Now, based on the wrap concept.
According to Rick Haskins, evp marketing for the CW Network, the program would not contain any traditional ads or promos, but marketers would pay to have their brands mentioned in the show.
The current wrap segments give advertisers three two-minute segments across a night of programming in which viewers get a mix of product exposure, lifestyle tips and insights into the lives of CW celebrities. MediaVest struck the first wrap deal last year for P&G's Herbal Essence brand, which was featured in America's Next Top Model.
The wraps have been a hit, said Haskins, and have lifted audience retention levels in pods to near 100 percent. In some cases, the wraps are higher rated than the shows in which they appear, thus the idea of the pilot based on the wrap. In addition, Haskins said the network is considering several different formats for next season, including one-minute and 30-second versions of the wrap. "It's really about giving the consumer an entertainment experience," while receiving a branded message from a sponsor, he said.
Next season TBS will introduce a new concept called the "bitcom," in which standup comedians will do short routines about specific products that will lead directly into 30-second spots promoting those same products. The bitcom spots will be offered throughout the TBS schedule, said Linda Yaccarino, evp, gm, Turner Entertainment Sales. She said that TBS would also continue and possibly expand next season its "very funny commercial" program of putting humorous spots in isolated pods in sitcoms. Those pods hold audiences better than normal pods, she said.
On TNT, Yaccarino said plans are in the works for an expanded presence of "microseries," branded-content segments for sponsors of dramas and movies. The network aired one series in the fourth quarter of last year called Change of Plans, that was sponsored by Chase and featured its new Freedom credit card. The program was produced by TNT for Chase and was shown in five 30-second segments during an airing of the film Cast Away. To integrate the campaign to the Web and a promotional contest, the last segment was available only on tnt.tv.
"This is all being driven by the desire of advertisers to get better proof of who's really watching their [ads] and how they can reach the most people," said Yaccarino.
Agency execs said the new retention techniques are critical going forward. Commenting on ABC's effort, John Swift, managing director in charge of all buying activity at Omnicom's PHD, said that the CW and TBS-type efforts "really take it to a place where we all want to go, which is putting something in the break that is valuable to the consumer and connects to what the client is trying to do."
Shari Cohen, president, co-executive director, national broadcast, MindShare, applauded the new efforts, but cautioned that execution is critical. And if the networks succeed in delivering more viewers to spots and pods, she said, "creative agencies have to raise the bar from a quality standpoint also. But what you're really trying to do is create a new viewing experience for people watching television, so you have to be mindful that viewers are going to embrace it and that they don't find it intrusive," said Cohen.
John Spiropoulos, vp, group research director at Publicis's MediaVest, agreed. "The question is, are we making ads more effective? At the end of the day a certain number of people are going to tune out of commercials, so it's about making it more enjoyable for the people that are there."