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NBC Hopes Short Movies Will Keep Viewers From Flipping

NBC thinks it has come up with a new way to get people to sit through blocks of commercials: Break up the ads with minimovies.

Starting in the fall, NBC will begin interspersing the primarily minute-long movies among the commercials accompanying its prime-time shows. The intention, NBC executives said, is to keep viewers so entertained that they do not dart away, and perhaps stay with NBC the entire night to catch the conclusion of the minimovie.

"Everybody is experimenting with ways to keep viewers around," said Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC Entertainment, which is a unit of General Electric. He cited the example of a hit series expanding beyond its allotted time, like last season when Fox's "American Idol" ran three or four minutes into the start time of the next program.

Driving the networks' efforts is the fear that the remote-control zapping that has led viewers to flee during commercials will soon turn to outright avoidance, as personal recording devices like TiVo become more popular. This concern has also spurred a wave of so-called product placement, in which marketers pay to display their wares on the program itself.

Advertising executives who buy media time said that while the success of NBC's planned minimovies was hardly assured, the attempt to tamp down channel-flipping was welcome.

"Retention throughout entire programs, start to finish, is definitely a challenge for the networks and for the advertisers who are buying time within the programs," said Tim Spengler, executive vice president and director for national broadcast at the New York office of Initiative Media North America. "Any ploy or strategy that holds the audience throughout a whole program would be of great interest to advertisers."

NBC has produced 10 one-minute movies so far, and has attracted stars like Michael Richards (providing the voice of a character in Claymation) and Carmen Electra. Some minimovies are built around suspense plots, or have black-comedy denouements, not unlike some old episodes of "The Twilight Zone."

There is also one longer film, called "Henry Tammer, Prodigal Bully," which will be four minutes in total. That movie, about an 8-year-old genius who also happens to be a nasty little bully, was made by Hank Perlman, a producer and director who helped create the series of absurdist promotions for ESPN called "This Is SportsCenter."

The one-minute movies, which NBC calls "1MM's," will be broken into two 30-second segments, with a suitable cliff-hanging moment to end the first segment. Part one could play somewhere in a block of commercials in NBC's program at 8 p.m., with part two in the 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m. show. "Henry Tammer, Prodigal Bully" will play over four nights in eight, 30-second installments, Mr. Zucker said.

The addition of the minimovies to NBC's prime-time lineup will not mean fewer commercials or network promotions. Instead, the movies will be used when a show is delivered 30 seconds short of its intended time.

The idea for the minimovies came to NBC from John Wells, the longtime executive producer of "E.R.," and Paris Barclay, director of numerous television shows, including "N.Y.P.D. Blue." In addition to Mr. Richards and Ms. Electra, actors like Tom Arnold, Bill Bellamy and Paula Marshall have been recruited.

The notion of a new inducement to watch commercials appealed to NBC, which has previously pushed through several innovations in prime-time formatting. In 1994, for example, NBC became the first network to squeeze the end credits all but off the screen, and create a seamless (and commercial-free) transition from one program to the next. All the other networks subsequently adopted the practice, intended to keep viewers from straying during long commercial breaks between shows.

Mr. Zucker emphasized that the one-minute movies will never be used in the time in-between programs. "We're still going to be seamless," he said.

Mr. Spengler, the executive at Initiative Media, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, said that the execution would be critical. "If the content is interesting," Mr. Spengler said, "particularly in the first few months when it's novel, I would be very interested in being in and around it."

"If they're not well done," he added, "they will junk up the program that they're in. It would just be fat."

NBC is not the only network tinkering with the short form. ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, is planning a series of three-minute films that may run in one-minute installments. That initiative is part of ABC's talent-development program and is not specifically intended to address viewer retention.

Because NBC intends to repeat the movies relatively often, the network will be satisfied, at least for now, with the 10 minimovies it has ordered. "I think that will last us through the first quarter" of 2004, Mr. Zucker said. "We're in no rush to do more."

"I think we'll be happy," he said, "if we just get some people talking about them."

He noted that NBC would also not be averse to one possible added benefit. "We believe we already have at least one of these we could try to turn into a series," Mr. Zucker said.

Posted on aef.com: August 7, 2003


Bill Carter, The New York Times. August 4, 2003

Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.