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New Efforts to Make Long Commercial Breaks Sizzle

Summer in the city. Humidity, long lines for the Hampton Jitney and worries on Madison Avenue about how to get viewers to sit still during commercial breaks.

This year, for the 2008-9 television season, the networks are betting on a panoply of pod-busters — unconventional content meant to entice viewers to pay attention during the commercial breaks, which are also called pods.

“If I could get half those people to turn their heads toward the screen, I’ve significantly increased the value of my client’s commercial,” said Kris Magel, senior vice president and director for national broadcast at Initiative, a media agency owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies.

Making pods more alluring has become a necessity since the networks agreed last fall to use ratings for commercial viewing, rather than for programs, as the standard for sales to advertisers. Results for the 2007-8 season were skewed by the writers’ strike, but in homes with TiVos and other digital video recorders, viewers increasingly wander off during long, cluttered pods.

“Longer pods, with more commercials, have gotten crazy,” said David Sklaver, president at KSL Media in New York.

“It’s feels like a sea of advertising,” he said of the long breaks. “You’re inviting viewers to leave instead of giving them reasons to stay.”

Companies like TiVo and TNS Media Intelligence can even track second by second what viewers are tuning in or turning off, making the challenges even more apparent.

“Advertising has yet to respond to the reality that people can choose whether they want to watch or not,” said Michael Lotito, chief of Media IQ, a media analysis company. “That puts pressure on to work harder.”

So networks are experimenting with several kinds of pod-busters. Here are examples:

Brief programs, called mini-sodes, micro-series or bitcoms, are sponsored by marketers. Think of them as shows that interrupt commercials that interrupt shows.

Clips, also sponsored, combine elements of commercials and programs. Many feature cast members of the shows in which they appear.

Promotions for network shows appear inside episodes of other shows, thanks to special effects. For instance, a truck in a scene of the Discovery series “Mythbusters” briefly displayed a reminder to watch a coming episode of another Discovery series, “When We Left Earth.” The embedded tune-in, as Discovery calls it, lasts three to five seconds.

“It’s a form of creative insinuation,” said John Ford, president at Discovery Channel U.S., part of Discovery Communications. “It’s a little Zen-like: being intrusive without seeming intrusive.” On the drawing board is a promotion for “Shark Week” during the series “Deadliest Catch,” during which digital sharks will leap from the water.

Networks match the themes or subjects of ads with the programs. For example, a commercial in a pod during the movie “Father of the Bride” could be a Nationwide insurance spot set at a wedding.

“The engagement metrics are off the charts, when we do it well,” said Mike Pilot, president for sales and marketing at NBC Universal, part of General Electric.

That is easier said than done, Mr. Pilot acknowledged, recalling a year’s worth of “pod-buster concepts we thought would hold viewers.” But after producing more than 50, he said, “we found that nothing worked.”

The solution, he said, was “experimenting with new kinds of content that integrate an advertiser brand with our show brand,” like a cartoon version of the singer Beyoncé pitching American Express and the series “Heroes”; using characters named Mike and Steve to promote AT&T Wireless along with the NBC Thursday comedy lineup; and “Last Comic Driving,” in which contestants from “Last Comic Standing” tell jokes while riding in a Honda.

Pod-busters called “Inside Look” on BBC America address plot points of the series in which they appear, including “Life on Mars” and “Torchwood.” At the start of a pod, an announcer asks viewers to stay tuned because “coming up in the break” is an actor or crew member discussing a recent scene from the show.

“We want to explore every way we can keep viewers engaged,” said Andrew Jackson, senior vice president at BBC Worldwide Americas, part of the BBC Worldwide division of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

BBC America plans to sell sponsorships of the “Inside Look” segments in the coming season, Mr. Jackson said.

Several networks are playing multiple choice with pod-busting, trying a variety of “made you look” efforts.

For instance, TBS, part of Turner Entertainment, will offer four different pod-busters — bitcoms, which will feature comedians performing skits about sponsors like Pizza Hut; micro-series, two-minute shows that integrate advertisers like Revlon into plots; customized spots for series like “House of Payne” and “My Boys,” featuring cast members promoting sponsors like Chrysler and Alltel; and matchups between the themes of spots and shows, known as TV in Context.

TBS is also creating promotions for a series, “The Bill Engvall Show,” that literally stop the shows in which they run. Mr. Engvall appears on the bottom third of the screen during a show like “Family Guy” and points a remote control as if pausing the scene. The show stops, he delivers a spiel for his series, he points the remote again and the show resumes.

“Pod-busting is big, but it has to be based on a creative idea to mean anything,” said Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Turner Entertainment, part of the Turner Broadcasting System unit of Time Warner.

As for critics who complain that some ideas blur the line between advertising and entertainment, Ms. Yaccarino said: “Our viewers are very vocal, and we listen to them every day. When it doesn’t work, we hear about it.”

Another Time Warner network, CW, which is co-owned with CBS, is also a prodigious producer of pod-busters. There are content wraps, sponsored vignettes that appear throughout episodes of a show; cwickies, five-second spots; and cwingers, video clips with commercials appended that are watched in sequence: on TV, then on the CW Web site, then back on TV.

For 2008-9, the network is developing segments for pods during “Gossip Girl” called “G.G. 411,” said Rick Haskins, executive vice president for marketing at CW, which will invite viewers to “go to their phones, put in a code and get additional information about ‘Gossip Girl’ that they would not get from watching the show alone.”

Media executives give pod-busters mixed reviews. Mr. Magel of Initiative described himself as “a very happy individual” because studies indicate “significant benefits” for advertisers “when you do it right.”

But Mr. Lotito of Media IQ dismissed pod-busters as “flawed” for reasons that include the “silly” nature of their content. He would prefer that the networks shorten each pod because, he said, “anything more than three or four spots is just too many.” Often a pod will contain six to eight commercials and promotions — or more.

Fox Broadcasting, part of the News Corporation, will trim pods in two new hourlong series for 2008-9, “Dollhouse” and “Fringe,” running 50 minutes of programming in each episode rather than 42 to 44. The commercials will cost more than those in shows with pods of conventional lengths.

“It’s fabulous that Fox is taking a shot at this,” said Steven J. Farella, chief at TargetCast TCM. “We need a way to change the business model to get more people to pay attention to the commercials.” Still, Mr. Farella said, “at a 30 to 40 percent premium, I’ll let someone else try it first.”

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. July 7, 2008

Copyright © 2008 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.