In TV's latest effort to reduce commercial loads and create a less intrusive advertising experience, A&E Networks is re-tooling some parts of the day as "enthusiast" blocks with more emphasis on branded content than traditional commercials.
Saturday mornings on History will be dedicated to outdoor programming, for example, comprised of previous episodes from History and A&E Network archives that fit the theme.
But instead of running standard commercials, the blocks will offer limited ad interruption and weave in content from marketers.
"Most of our non-prime dayparts are repeat machines," said Peter Olsen, exec VP-national ad sales, A&E Networks. "This model worked for 30 years but not any more. So we are going to repurpose those time slots."
Some of the marketers' native content will be created by A&E, but much of it will be content that brands have already created to run on their own sites or on YouTube. This will give marketers another home for ancillary content and open it up to more eyeballs, Mr. Olsen said.
As viewers increasingly watch content on platforms that are ad-free, cable networks have been working to reduce the glut of commercials and make a more consumer-friendly viewing environment. Viacom has said it will reduce commercial time on its networks, which has ballooned in recent years. Turner is doing something similar on truTV and TNT, as well as experimenting with different commercial formats and native ads.
The new "enthusiast" blocks will be part of A&E Networks' pitch to advertisers during this year's upfronts, when the TV business look to sell a bulk of its ad inventory for the new season.
"As fragmentation has made it harder to reach viewers, hyper-targeting passion groups can bring a lot of value," Mr. Olsen said. While these blocks of programming will likely have small audiences compared to other types of programming, Mr. Olsen said they will reach a loyal "super fan" that's valuable to marketers.
In a way, A&E is looking to bring the "niche" back to cable, a role Mr. Olsen said digital has adopted.
"Digital is niche to cable as cable was to broadcast years ago," he said. So A&E is creating its own digital verticles.
"These blocks are acting more like digital with the advantage of TV's predicable reach," Mr. Olsen said.
Initially, the three-hour blocks will air a combination of native ads and traditional commercials, until demand "catches up," Mr. Olsen said. But the "goal would be to get a fully native experience with a totally different break format."
Just how much commercial time will air during the blocks is still being determined, but it is not about "an artificial target of commercial load based on minutes," Mr. Olsen said.
One of the biggest questions surrounding native advertising has been whether the demands of producing ads that fit the surrounding programming can be done on a large scale. The sheer time and labor required to create some branded integrations has made it difficult to do more than a handful in the same period.
But Mr. Olsen said these "enthusiast" blocks are a "more practical entry point."
"Some of the clients we are talking with are really small," he said. "This lowers the entry point, with pricing a little north of digital but more realistic than doing this in prime time."
The first of the blocks is slated to bow in the fall, with other blocks to follow on various A&E Networks channels.
Aside from the outdoor block on History, the company is looking into a technology and small business block to air on Sundays. On A&E Network, the focus will be on home and lifestyle content on Saturdays, possibly complemented down the road by an arts and entertainment block on Sundays. LMN will air a faith and inspiration block on Sundays, while Lifetime will look to air health and wellness and parenting and wedding blocks on the weekend or in the early fringe daypart from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
A&E has been experimenting with different commercial formats and new ways to work with advertisers over the last few months. Most recently, its FYI Network aired "HomeGrown Makeover," a Saturday-morning show conceived by Horizon Media to help introduce Frederique's Choice in the U.S. The series, which debuted in January, brightens up greenery-deprived living spaces with flowers and plants. It stars Frederique van der Wal, founder of Frederique's Choice, along with designer Carter Oosterhause.
FYI will likely air a second season of the show around Mother's Day, said Mel Berning, president-chief revenue officer, A&E Networks, saying the series brought in a loyal and more upscale audience than previously seen on Saturday mornings.
This time around, the show will look to incorporate options for viewers to purchase flower arrangements by phone, the web and eventually, perhaps, the screen via web-enabled TVs.