Getting Creative To Keep Viewers

With commercial ratings looming as the new currency media agencies will use to buy television spots—perhaps as early as this May’s television upfront, on a limited basis—the broadcast and cable networks are under increasingly intense pressure to find creative ways to ensure viewers will watch those ads.

“While it’s not a Chicken Little situation yet, if [the networks] are not concerned about this by now, if they are not testing ways to keep viewers from defecting during commercial breaks, it’s just foolhardy,” says Pam Zucker, senior vp of marketplace ignition at MediaVest.

And if the networks don’t take that advice to heart and move beyond the 30-second spot, others will move without them. “The days of the agencies waiting around passively for the networks to come to them with ideas and opportunities are over, and they should be over. We need to be actively experimenting and trying new things,” says Larry Novenstern, head of Optimedia’s NewCast integrated media buying and planning unit.

ABC sales president Mike Shaw insists he and his sales colleagues are on the job. “We’ve been looking at every opportunity to give advertisers more value and ways to hold viewers attention during commercial pods,” he says, adding that at next month’s program development meetings with media agencies and advertisers, ABC will unveil new ideas on how it plans to get a better flow of audience into commercial pods.

One of the more aggressive experiments in engaging viewers in commercial pods has sprung from cable network VH1. Conceived by the network’s executive vp and general manager Tom Calderone, VH1 put together a team of creative and sales execs and charged them with coming up with a series of different network-produced spots that will draw viewers from programming breaks into—and ideally, through—ad pods.

VH1 conducted the first live test of its creative-meets-commercial devices in prime time two weeks ago to see how viewing audiences would respond. About 10 media agencies and their clients participated, and the network did follow-up polling last week to gather viewer reaction. Calderone’s team is analyzing the data gathered and he says the net is very much committed to continued experimentation with a wide variety of these devices going forward.

Regardless of the results, Zucker praised both VH1 and sister network MTV for their willingness to try new approaches. “A year ago they were not so collaborative, and now they are,” she says. “They get props for that.” Zucker describes herself as having spent the last two years atop a “soap box” at TV industry forums or one-on-one with sales execs over the need to get advertisers and their agencies more involved: in finding commercial-pod solutions, but also partnering earlier on more meaningful ways to include product integrations in story lines. She says that can be accomplished if the agency sits down during the development process with sales executives, as well as entertainment executives and show creators.

“Let’s face it, the sales people can push as hard as they want to get products integrated into shows, but unless the programming executives want to get on board with it, it is not going to happen,” Zucker says.

Another network making strides in this area, Zucker notes, is The CW, which this season has successfully used content wraps and has also continued with the extensive use of product-placement opportunities that were first deployed by predecessor network The WB.

The content wraps—which in one form consist of two-minute spots that tell a story with product integration, interspersed within regular commercial pods—have produced viewer retention rates of 100 percent out of the programming. That number is compared to the usual average retention rate of between 92 percent and 96 percent on broadcast networks leading into regular commercial pods with no wraps.

One CW content wrap, for Procter & Gamble’s Herbal Essence, that aired during America’s Next Top Model, for example, earned a 4.6 rating among women 18-34, 2 percent higher than the 4.5 program rating for the preceding three minutes, according to Nielsen data.

“If advertisers come in and request a partnership with us, we will work to help them marry their brand with a show and its producer,” explains Alison Tarrant, senior vp of integrated sales and marketing at The CW. “We have a list of advertisers who want to play above and beyond just 30-second spots.”

Tarrant says about 25 percent of all of The CW’s on-air advertisers are doing more with the network’s various media platforms than simply airing traditional :30s. Among them are Procter & Gamble, Cingular, Johnson & Johnson and Sunkist.

This season, Sunkist became the sponsor of a promotional event on CW show One Tree Hill, initiated by the show’s creator, Mark Schwan. He suggested The CW conduct a contest in which high school students would submit tapes saying why the show should film an episode in their town. The contest was promoted on air and an event-specific Web site. The winning school received a surprise visit by Schwan and series star Hillary Burton during a school assembly, notifying them that they won. This was captured on tape (similar to the Publishers Clearing House TV ads), and segments of that visit were run as content wraps sponsored by Sunkist, during the Feb. 7 episode of One Tree Hill. Sunkist also had its products integrated into the episode.

Tarrant acknowledges that some studios are more aggressive about allowing the incorporation of products into their shows’ story lines than others. But, she adds, “more show creators and producers are recognizing that advertisers have value to offer to their shows, so it is worth it for them to at least have the discussion. Some creators are just interested in the cash to offset costs, and some decide after discussing it that it’s not for them. But in most cases, we can come up with a model that works for both the producers and advertisers. We serve as the conduit.”

Zucker also mentions Turner as a family of cable networks open to creative collaboration with advertisers and agencies. Four MediaVest clients—P&G, Kraft, Masterfoods and Capital One—picked out their funniest spots and ran them in special pods during TBS’ telecasts of Everybody Loves Raymond with the network doing special lead-outs from the sitcom into the commercial pods.

Linda Yaccarino, executive vp and general manager of Turner Entertainment Sales, says Turner’s efforts to give advertisers value-added opportunities date back to the launch of its “Dinner and a Movie” concept a decade ago. That interstitial featured an advertiser-sponsored cooking show before, during commercial breaks and post-telecast for a movie.

Yaccarino says Turner’s efforts to offer advertisers nontraditional opportunities have continued with individual sponsorships of commercial-free telecasts of TNT’s hit drama The Closer, most recently by Toyota, which included product integration in the show. She also points to Love Bites, the 2-minute mini-sitcoms written by Paul Reiser that air weeknights on TBS and are sponsored by Unilever’s Sunsilk brand.

Zucker—whose brother Jeff was recently named CEO of NBC Universal, but who stresses that her opinions about that network are not based in any way on his position there—says that she has not done any specific deals with NBC so far, but that “we have had some phenomenal conversations about possibilities. And during the coming year we will put together some successful projects.”

Marianne Gambelli, executive vp, sales and marketing at NBCU, notes that the strategic marketing unit created under Beth Comstock (just named president of NBCU Integrated Media) and Michael Pilot (NBCU’s new ad sales president), will be working with the sales department for this very purpose. And between now and the end of May, when Nielsen Media Research is scheduled to begin releasing commercial-ratings data tapes to the industry, NBCU execs are discussing testing to determine what can be done with commercial pods to make them stickier with viewers.

But among media buyers, NBCU gets high marks for its NBC 360 digital components that complement advertising and enhancements within its TV shows, particularly for some of its newest prime-time entrants such as Heroes and Friday Night Lights. “NBC did a really good job in the last upfront by bringing new ideas to the table on how to extend an advertiser’s brand beyond traditional :30s,” says John Swift, managing director in charge of all buying at media agency PHD. “Moving forward, the networks are going to need to bring more value than just pricing to the table in the upfront. The need to protect the value of the commercial pods is in the best interests of both the networks and the advertisers.”

Gambelli believes the NBCU entertainment division, when selecting shows for development, will be picking shows that will not only air well on TV, but that can resonate with viewers across all platforms. She points to hit drama Heroes as a prime example of a show that could easily work for both viewers and advertisers on multiple mediums.

However, some networks, while acknowledging that wraps, integrations and other nontraditional ad sponsorships are important tools to enhance pod stickiness, argue that they have to be used in an appropriately strategic way. “There is more focus by our entertainment side to concentrate all its efforts, particularly for start-up shows, on developing the best possible show and to get those first dozen episodes just right without having to worry about product insertions,” says ABC’s Shaw. “It’s easier to do placements in returning shows where the audience is comfortable with the show and advertisers understand the concepts more and how their products can fit in.”

Shaw also contends it is easier for cable networks to incorporate product integrations because much of their schedules are made up of either reality shows or off-net programs. He also says the pressure for a new show to do mega-ratings out of the gate in order to succeed is far less on cable than on the broadcast nets.

Beyond scripted shows, though, Shaw says ABC has been very aggressive with product integrations and special sponsorships in its reality shows, along with its daytime soap operas, morning news show Good Morning America, its late-night Jimmy Kimmel Live! and daytime talk show The View.

ABC and Kimberly-Clark just partnered on a three-week giveaway sweepstakes on The View, in which viewers were given the chance to win a $25,000 room makeover each day the show aired. In addition to the giveaway, Kimberly-Clark products such as Kleenex, Scott Tissue and Huggies were promoted during the show. The event resulted in increased ratings for The View, and drew the largest sweepstakes response in the network’s history.

Regarding commercial pods, Shaw says “It is in all of our best interests to make sure we find ways to lead the audiences from the shows into the commercials. Right now our commercial pods in prime time retain 96 percent of the program audience. With commercial ratings coming, our goal is to make that 100 percent.”

Once that’s solved, maybe the next challenge for TV sales execs will be to get viewers to actually buy the advertisers’ products.