TruTV Goes All-In on Reduced Ad Loads, Will Transition Entire Schedule by 2021

Network says its smaller ad pods are already providing big ROI lifts

All of truTV's shows, like At Home With Amy Sedaris, now feature just four-and-a-half minutes of ads and promos per half hour. Jon Pack/truTV
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After becoming the first network to cut its ad load on new programming by almost 50 percent, truTV is going all-in on smaller, less cluttered ad pods and will transition its entire schedule to the format in the next three years.

By January 2021, truTV’s entire total-day programming will air in the limited commercial interruption (LCI) format, with just four-and-a-half minutes per half hour (nine minutes per hour) devoted to national ads, local ads and network promos. Each half-hour episode on the network now includes 24 minutes and 30 seconds of show content.

“Reduced ad loads have very much aligned with our desire to deliver the most premium experience possible for viewers,” said truTV president Chris Linn. “In terms of ad sales, we’ve had such a positive response from advertisers—we had almost 100 percent renewal year over year—and the fact that they’re seeing tangible increases in actual sales of products as a result of it, it’s like, why wouldn’t you keep going?”

Currently, 11 percent of truTV’s schedule is in the LCI format. The network will increase those hours next year and will finish its transition by January 2021. The switch to total day LCI will take three years because the network—which makes close to 200 original hours of programming per year—needs time to build up enough inventory to fill the schedule for the entire day, rather than just repeating the same shows over and over again.

Two years ago, truTV announced it would drop up to nine minutes of ads per hour beginning in fall 2016 for the lowest average commercial and promo time in all of television.

The move has already been a big success for the network and its advertisers. TruTV is on track to become one of the only networks with two years of primetime rating increases in the 18-49 demo, while length of tune (the average amount a time that a viewer is tuned into a network) has also increased. Brands in the LCI pods are seeing ROI (return on investment) lifts of four times compared to traditional pods.

During this year’s upfront, Turner ad sales president Donna Speciale saw upfront renewal rates of nearly 100 percent with their LCI partners. Plus, the network signed on nearly 70 new advertisers this year, including Nintendo, Apple, Old Navy, Chipotle, Activision, H&R Block, Sears, Red Bull and Wells Fargo.

KFC, which has been a long-time advertiser on the network, said the reduced ad format switch began paying immediate dividends. “The uncluttered environment that it provides gives us the space we need to tell the story where it’s not cluttered with a lot of other advertisers,” said Steve Kelly, KFC’s U.S. director of media and digital. “It provides better ad recall and awareness, since users are less likely to open their phone or skip the commercials after they get that notice that this will be a limited break. And lastly, we’re always trying to add value to our viewing experience. This is another way that we get positioned as, ‘KFC is providing this break for you, rather than just interrupting you.’”

The success with the reduced ad pods also prompted KFC to pursue other partnerships with the network. In October, the brand participated in the first-ever integration with The Chris Gethard Show—a hilariously bad Colonel Sanders audition from correspondent and comedian Connor Ratliff, who had actually tried out for the role.

Before Linn arrived at truTV in 2013, he worked at MTV, where he “spent a lot of time immersed in millennial expectations. He added that one of his first thoughts on the team was “guys, I know what’s coming for us, and it’s really scary, so we’ve got to get ahead of this.”

“This has been a big piece of that, knowing that they have access to so much content, they have no patience for something that’s not delivering and isn’t the best experience possible,” Linn explained.

He worked to rebrand the network as a comedy destination in 2014, and a year later, the median age fell from 43 to 34, where it has stayed since. As Linn revamped the network and its audience, Speciale began talking with buyers about the reduced ad load shift, providing plenty of data to show the ratings and engagement increases potentially garnered from a less-cluttered environment—which commands a higher CPM rate. “It’s not necessarily ‘they’re paying more; they’re getting more,'” she said. “It was the perfect combination, and started showing results over the past two years. So we were like, ‘Let’s go for it.'”

TruTV’s total day shift to a reduced ad load is something that few networks can offer, given how many rely on syndicated shows, where the acquired content is at a set length to pad their schedules. “You can’t go back and take all the off-network shows and reformat them,” said Speciale.

Turner is making the commitment shortly before AT&T is likely to close on the deal to acquire its company, Time Warner. That said, Speciale noted that AT&T’s chairman and CEO Randall L. Stephenson has spoken frequently about the importance of putting the consumer experience front and center, which is what this commitment will do for truTV viewers.

“This falls very nicely right into his wheelhouse of what he believes the consumer experience needs to be,” Speciale said. “I think we’re doing exactly what AT&T wants us to do.”

Speciale said that truTV’s reduced ad load originated as a way to help brands asking for a less-cluttered environment, and she hopes that client-requested innovations like this one—as well as OpenAP, the audience-targeting platform she created with Viacom and Fox—will bear fruit next year.

“Clients know that this landscape needs to change. I am trying to push the envelope that it needs to happen quicker. We really have to stop talking about it. I feel like we’re talking, and we’re not walking,” said Speciale. “I do believe that ’18 will be the pivotal year. I’m pushing hard on it.”

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