The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Some of the most creative thinking in television these days has nothing to do with comedy or drama. It’s about the commercials.
Fueled by a growing sense of desperation, networks are inserting games, quizzes and mini-dramas into commercial breaks. They’re incorporating more product pitches into programming. Two experimental programs without traditional commercial breaks will premiere this fall. NBC has even called on Jerry Seinfeld for help.
This is all being done to stop viewers with DVRs from fast-forwarding through advertisements, or to circumvent those that do.
Adding to the urgency, this week Nielsen Media Research begins offering ratings for commercial breaks, instead of just the shows around them.
“We all need to become more creative in how we incorporate sponsors into a program,” said Ed Swindler, executive vice president for NBC Universal ad sales. “No one on the creative side or the business side wants to make commercials intrusive, but we do need to commercialize efficiently so viewers can afford to get free television.”
An estimated 17 percent of American homes now have digital video recorders. Nielsen estimates that in prime time, nearly half of 18-to-49-year-old viewers with DVRs are watching recorded programs instead of live ones. Of these, six in 10 skip through the ads.
Figure in bathroom breaks and channel surfers, and that makes for a lot of missed opportunities for marketers — with a lot more coming as DVR use grows.
So far, the most frequent experiment is to insert original content into commercial breaks. The CW network pioneered “content wraps” last year where, in one example, a hair care company ditched the typical ad to present beauty tips and interviews with the network’s stars, all involving the company’s products.
The CW figured on doing six content wraps at first, but advertisers were so enthusiastic that 20 were done, a spokesman said.
TNT aired a five-episode mini-drama about a young woman, with viewers directed to a Web site — plastered with the sponsoring credit card company’s ads — for the finale. Fox created an animated taxi driver, Oleg, who would appear during breaks talking to his passengers. Next month Court TV offers a mystery about an unsolved murder with clues dropped in commercial breaks, online and via text messages; the game’s winner gets $25,000. Fans of NBC’s “Scrubs” were asked trivia questions at the beginning of a commercial break, the answer appearing in between ads.
Seinfeld will appear in several quick comedy skits for NBC next fall that also promote his upcoming movie.
TBS has tried making commercial breaks a destination. It often bunches a series of funny commercials together and promotes them ahead of time to viewers.
“It makes sense to have a funny commercial in a funny pod on a funny network,” said Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president of Turner’s ad sales.
Many networks are rethinking how traditional commercial breaks are structured.
Executives at ABC are considering ways to get viewers into an ad before they even realize it. On “Ugly Betty,” for example, the camera focuses on a book as its cover dissolves into a commercial. Or there could be a real ad playing on a television that is in the scene of a show.
The CW is readying “cwickies,” a series of five-second ads that, by an evening’s end, promotes a longer ad. With a sponsor’s assist, TNT will air some series premieres commercial-free to entice viewers. Both the CW and Telemundo will premiere shows in the fall — an entertainment newsmagazine and talent contest — with commercials incorporated into the shows.
One television expert suggests networks need to go back to the future, to when sponsor messages were routinely weaved into entertainment.
Comic Jack Benny’s radio show would include humorous “phone calls” with executives at the company sponsoring his show, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
His students yawn in boredom at old black-and-white TV shows, but perk up when they see commercial messages float in. One favorite comes from “The Flintstones,” when Fred and Barney take a break from cutting the grass to enjoy their favorite cigarette.
Ford’s “American Idol” videos and company-specific “tasks” on “The Apprentice” are the most effective examples of this approach today, Thompson said.
Marketers also need to make their commercials more entertaining and guard against overexposure, he said.
“A commercial has to be like a DVD extra,” he said. “It has to be an added value, not an inconvenience.”
Nielsen’s new report card may force that idea upon them, too. The new commercial minute averages will provide a truer sense of how many people are actually watching the ads, and that could be a scary moment for the TV industry.