National Geographic Channel Will Reduce Ad Load by Up to 50 Percent for New Series and Specials

Documentaries will air commercial-free

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Networks are making good on their promises to start creating less cluttered environments for consumers. TNT, truTV and NBC are experimenting with reducing ad loads in the coming season, and now National Geographic Channel has joined the fray. The network announced today it will scale back ad loads by up to 50 percent across new series and specials in the U.S., and will air its feature documentaries completely commercial-free.

The network quietly tested its new strategy with its recent series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. The show, which was the most-watched series in the network's history, had 50 percent fewer national ads.

National Geographic's new series this fall will also have fewer ads, including its miniseries event Mars, a six-part hybrid—part scripted, part documentary—from executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Its relaunch of Explorer (which will now be a weekly, hour-long talk show) and its movie Killing Reagan are both cutting back, too.

Going forward, National Geographic's scripted series will feature ad load reductions of up to 50 percent, while most unscripted shows will have closer to 25 percent fewer ads. Returning series, however, will retain their current loads.

21st Century Fox, which expanded its partnership with National Geographic last fall, said this is part of a company-wide effort to scale back advertising, and cited Nielsen data that shows Fox has the fewest number of commercials in prime time: 10.3 minutes per hour, compared with 11.4 minutes for CBS and NBC and 11.6 minutes for ABC and The CW.

"In today's super-saturated market, we are transforming the traditional commercial model to ensure that we're delivering the greatest value to advertisers and the best possible consumer experience," said Toby Byrne, president, advertising sales, Fox Networks Group, in a statement. "By reducing ad loads across National Geographic and on other shows in our portfolio, combined with our innovative ad technology and strategy, we are creating a TV experience that amplifies brands and commands maximum attention from viewers."

"As National Geographic increases its investment in premium storytelling, we're committed to providing a more immersive experience for our viewers," added Courteney Monroe, CEO, National Geographic Global Networks, in a statement. "Presenting our new slate of high-quality programming across every screen and platform with minimal commercial interruption is just one example of how we are differentiating ourselves in the marketplace." 

Several networks have announced plans to reduce their ad loads in an effort to create a less-cluttered experience for viewers and advertisers. Turner is reducing ad load for truTV by up to 50 percent this fall, with similar reductions for TNT's new three dramas this year. Last month, NBC said it will reduce the ad load for Saturday Night Live's 42nd season by around 30 percent, which is the equivalent of two commercial pods.

Much like Turner, National Geographic will be charging advertisers more to appear in what it believes is a "premium," less-cluttered environment, so it ultimately will get a similar amount of ad revenue for each program, even with the smaller ad load.

National Geographic's news comes two months after Monroe detailed her bold vision for the channel, which she said will look very different by year's end, as part of the network's upfront pitch. "We are taking epic, audacious programming swings with much bigger budgets," said Monroe during a press briefing in March, and "investing heavily in marketing"—more than ever before as the network looks to reach upscale audiences and millennials.

The network first experimented with ad-free documentaries in February, when it aired He Named Me Malala, the 2015 documentary about Pakistani teen activist Malala Yousafzai, without ads. The program was sponsored by Geico, which aired a spot before the film. Monroe told Adweek at the time that she expected to continue that approach going forward.

"If a project merits treating it differently or finding some alternative business model, we'll do that," she said. "We are an ad-supported network, and we're looking for innovative ways to work with sponsors."

With today's news, she's apparently found it.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.