The Biz: NBC uses films to boost ad viewership

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NBC deliberately courts young audiences-the coveted 18-49ers-in its programming, but one of its latest strategies is to keep them around for the ads as well, by running one-minute mini-movies during commercial breaks.

The network, owned by General Electric Co., recently announced that it has commissioned 10 one-minute mini-movies, or 1MMs, which will be embedded into pods of thirty-second spots. The 1MMs will be broken into parts, with the first part ending in a cliffhanger, and the conclusion shown later in the evening. The first 1MMs are expected to air later this month during "The Tonight Show."

"Henry Tammer-Prodigy Bully," written and directed by Hank Perlman, a partner at the commercial production house Hungry Man, New York, is the first mini-movie set to air. "Henry" was shot as four separate one-minute episodes that will air in 30-second installments within ad pods. Each half-minute episode ends with the line "To be continued." "Henry" is a mock-umentary about a child genius who plays a violin, but is also a violent bully with severe discipline problems. Other films will feature actors such as Carmen Electra of "Baywatch" fame, Danny Masterson of "That `70s Show" and the voice of Michael Richards of "Seinfeld" in an animated short.

saving money

In order to make room for the movies, NBC will cut back program time rather than spot time, a move that could also save money in the long run for the network because the mini-movies, so far, are inexpensive to make: "Henry Tammer" cost about $65,000 to produce. The average 30-second spot costs about $300,000.

"It was a fun format to work in because it was similar to commercials," Perlman says. "We shot it in digital video, on mini-DV tapes. And I got people I've worked with on spots to pitch in, because they liked the idea. It was a labor of love for everybody."

NBC had to structure a new deal for the format in order to determine payments for Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America members. "It's not a half-hour show and it's not commercials, either," Perlman says. "People got paid, but they didn't get paid what they normally get paid, that's the best way to put it."

While many people in the production welcome the new format because it may create more work in an industry that has been hurt by the ad recession, some express misgivings.

who's responsible?

"Everyone is groping for a way to keep people from running to the bathroom during commercials," says Steve Dickstein, president of commercial production house Partizan Films. "But does this mean commercial breaks are so boring to consumers that the stations are going to invest money to keep people watching? The networks are telling advertisers it's our responsibility to keep people in their seats during commercial breaks. That's taking the responsibility away from the advertiser to keep people there."

Meanwhile, NBC has experimented for the last three years with hot-switching, the practice of moving directly from one show to another without stopping for a cluster of spots.

"Ad pods that appear between programs rather than in the middle of shows are the most ignored spots on television," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research, Horizon Media, New York. "Hot-switching is intended to maintain your audience through the gap, and prevent channel switching. It's growing in popularity."

"The hot-switch is seamless," says Alan Wurtzl, president-research media development, NBC. "We do it in prime time and we encourage our affiliate stations to hot-switch from local news to "The Today Show" or the nightly news. "

Mini-movies and hot-switching make it clear that the rules of TV are going through a period of reinvention, faced with the challenges of remotes, TiVo and multichannels. But in the end, Wurtzl pointed out, if the programming doesn't deliver, "these things don't make a bad show into a success. But they minimize people surfing away and not coming back."

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