Why the delay? Because late at night the first break "is a signal to viewers to turn the set off and go to bed," said Poltrack. For advertisers, the problem was audiences tend to fall off sharply between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, so the delay cost them viewers. By moving up the break into the first quarter hour of the show, the audience for the ads climbed approximately 10 percent compared to two years ago, Poltrack said.
Like MTV, other networks created new departments to focus, for the first time, on maximizing audiences for commercials, including NBC, which created a West Coast-based unit to address the issue.
Not every new technique has worked as planned. One early NBC trial involved posing trivia questions leading out of the comedy Scrubs. Viewers had to watch the commercial pod in order to learn the answer.
Retention levels weren't raised, the network discovered. But a MasterCard spot in the mystery drama series Life, which offered new clues related to the content in the program, had a positive effect on DVR viewing: 25 percent of those watching in playback mode stopped skipping through ads to watch the MasterCard commercial, according to the network's research.
At E! Entertainment, audience levels for commercials normally fell 15 percent compared to program content, said Suzanne Kolb, the cable network's chief marketing officer. But a mix of commercial pod reformatting and new ad content techniques has narrowed the gap to between 9 and 10 percent, she said. One apparent turnoff for viewers was the length of breaks on the network, which usually ran three-and-a-half to four minutes twice every half hour. The network redistributed the same number of spots over three breaks averaging two-and-a-half minutes. "It makes it easier for people to get through," said Kolb.
E! also produces content such as short news segments that it mixes with commercial pods to boost retention. Another technique: putting a crawl along the bottom of the screen leading into commercial breaks, although many advertisers are resisting because they want the whole screen for their ad. "That's not unreasonable, but we're still trying to get buy-in [on the crawl technique] because it's better for everybody" in terms of retaining a larger audience, she said.
But the new focus on commercial audiences has also raised fundamental questions about TV ads and ratings that have sparked debate within the industry. Just two weeks ago Nielsen Media Research began a survey of its national TV clients. With all the experimentation with new techniques such as microseries, live spots, content wraps and more elaborate brand integrations within actual program content, Nielsen wants to know if the industry feels the term "commercial" needs to be redefined.
Also up for reconsideration: should all nontraditional commercials be folded into C3 averages or broken out in separate reports? And what about the C3 system itself -- should it remain in place as the standard yardstick for buying and selling ads or should Nielsen move to a more granular system that measures audiences for specific spots as some clients have requested?
Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC Universal Television, said the survey is all well and good, but as a first step Nielsen should publish a paper outlining "what they can and can't do" to change the current system, over what period of time and at what cost. "I don't want to have a debate before everybody has a clear set of issues and a common base of knowledge of what's achievable," he said. "Then we can have a conversation."
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