Less Is More for truTV, Which Cut Its Prime-Time Ads Almost in Half

Completes reinvention with new ad load

There's a lot more to see as truTV's original series return for their new seasons this fall. All of the network's prime-time original shows, including Impractical Jokers, Adam Ruins Everything and Billy on the Street, feature up to four-and-a-half additional minutes of content (each episode now clocks in at 24 minutes, 30 seconds), part of truTV's strategy to reduce ad load by up to nine minutes—47 percent—per hour.

The move came out of discussions last year among truTV president Chris Linn; Donna Speciale, Turner ad sales chief; and Joe Hogan, Turner evp of portfolio sales and client partnerships for ad sales, about improving the audience experience. "Out of that came, we have too much clutter. If we're competing with streaming services where you can stream whole episodes with no interruptions, what's the most we could do to make the experience stronger? Cutting the clutter by half is a great way to do that," said Linn. "We know this will increase viewer engagement."

Since truTV announced its ad load reduction plans a year ago, several other networks and shows have followed suit (see sidebar below). Nearly 80 percent of truTV's upfront partners bought into truTV originals with reduced commercial time.

The ad load reduction "shows a lot of long-term foresight, which TV networks often don't have," said David Campanelli, svp, director of national broadcast for Horizon Media. "This is going to take a long time to build—people seeing truTV, having a better viewer experience and watching it more because they had a better viewer experience." As long as truTV and the other networks exhibit that necessary patience, "I think it's good for the health of TV for networks to be doing things like this," he said.

The network gave its show creators a full year to determine how best to work the additional time into their episodes; the number of ad breaks haven't changed, but the individual pods are shorter. And several series are producing two different versions: one with the reduced ad load and another with the longer ad breaks, which will air in repeats outside of the C3 window. "But I think we're quickly going to move toward not even doing that," said Linn.

The reduced ad load caps a drastic evolution for truTV, which was called Court TV until 2008, that Linn began shortly after he joined the network in 2013. "They'd fallen into a groove of, let's get a quick ratings grab with a Pawn Stars knockoff, or a Storage Wars knockoff, or whatever the reality show du jour was. In short bursts, that kept them afloat, but long term it wasn't overly appealing to advertisers. The content wasn't particularly good," said Campanelli.

Linn recast truTV as a comedy-centric, millennial-themed network, choosing other series in the vein of Impractical Jokers—the hidden camera practical joke show from the comedy troupe The Tenderloins—which he called "the canary in the coal mine." (Now in Season 5, it's truTV's highest rated show in 18-34 and 18-49.) Explained Marissa Ronca, evp, head of programming, truTV: "It's creator-driven, built around them and very authentic. We've now extended that into every show you see. These creator-driven shows built around people make them almost un-copyable in a way."

The results have paid off. In a year when most cable networks lost viewers, truTV is up 2 percent year to year in adults 18-49; its millennial audience has increased 11 percent. The network's median age has dropped to 32, four years younger than last year. And its shows are "much more polished and professional. The environment you're in is much better than it was, and that's always attractive to advertisers," said Campanelli. "The network has turned itself in the right direction."

This story first appeared in the October 31, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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