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How Commercial-Free Series Premieres Are Paying Off for Cable Networks

TBS, Syfy and WGN America give new shows a boost

WGN America will forgo ads for the March 9 series premiere of drama Underground. WGN

This winter, something big has been missing from the new series premieres on TBS, Syfy and WGN America: advertisements. Syfy aired a commercial-free sneak peek of The Magicians in December, while TBS rolled out the entire first season of comedy Angie Tribeca during a 25-hour "binge-a-thon" in January, with no ads during the episodes (local ads played between episodes, along with content sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts and Intuit's TurboTax). And WGN America opted to forego ads for the series premieres of its two winter dramas: Outsiders in January and Underground on March 9.

With 412 scripted series and around 750 unscripted series flooding networks and streaming services last year, networks need to pull out all the stops to break through the clutter and entice audiences to take a chance on their new programming.

"We're obviously an ad-supported network and our advertising partners are really important to us, but for me, nothing is more important than the shows launching successfully," said Matt Cherniss, president and gm, WGN America and Tribune Studios, who weighed "the short-term experience of how much money you might generate off one episode of television versus the long-term of keeping an audience involved and getting them hooked on a show to the extent that they're going to come back for weeks two, three, four and beyond." This approach, the network hopes, will avoid the audience inertia that doomed Manhattan, its critically acclaimed, yet recently canceled, drama.

It's not just new series that are foregoing advertising. On Feb. 29, National Geographic Channel premiered He Named Me Malala, the 2015 documentary about Pakistani teen activist Malala Yousafzai, without ads (it was sponsored by Geico, which aired a spot before the film). Courteney Monroe, CEO, National Geographic Global Networks, said she'll continue that going forward. "If a project merits treating it differently or finding some alternative business model, we'll do that," she said.

Before The Magicians, the last time an ad-free episode aired in prime time on any broadcast or basic cable was 2012 when NBC previewed its comedies Go On and Animal Practice during Summer Olympics coverage. But with audiences increasingly accustomed to watching content without ad interruptions on HBO, Netflix and Amazon, networks are trying to replicate that experience to attract viewers.

Buyers, too, see the value in sacrificing short-term exposure for long-term gains. "We're willing to sacrifice whatever benefit we're going to get out of that one episode if we can get the next Walking Dead," said David Campanelli, svp, director of national broadcast for Horizon Media. "That's obviously lofty standards, but TV needs hits, and that's harder and harder to do in an ad-supported way. If that's a way to jump-start it and get attention, we're all for it."

So far, the winter gambles have paid off. The Magicians and Angie Tribeca have already been renewed for Season 2 (though Angie's pickup came last November), while Outsiders' premiere was the most-watched original series in WGN America history, with 3.9 million viewers in live-plus-three (in both linear and digital views).

That means networks will be experimenting with even more ad-free premieres. "No one expects the TV ad model to change 100 percent, but stunts like this that stand out and are different than what we're used to, you'll see more of it for sure," said Campanelli. "Because it's a tense battle out there for the networks to stand out."

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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