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CNN Marries Content and Commercials to Retain Viewers

On 'John King, USA,' Network Tests Split-Screen That Offers Live View of News Show's Set During Ad Breaks

By Published on . 3

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- TV viewers by now are accustomed to seeing product placement in their favorite shows. But how will they react upon seeing "program placement" in their commercials?

ALL EYES ON ME: John King can't escape the cameras.
ALL EYES ON ME: John King can't escape the cameras. Credit: CNN
On John King's new early-evening news show on CNN, every commercial runs with a small window at the bottom of the screen offering a live view of the show's set. That's right -- the show, "John King, USA," in a sense continues into the commercials, with viewers able to see activity between producers and talent as well as a broader graphic offering news and tidbits from around the nation.

With marketers now paying for TV ad time based on the number of people watching commercials (rather than TV shows, as was once the norm) networks are working to diminish the sense viewers have long had that advertising interrupts their favorite programs. To keep people riveted, why not keep the show going alongside the ads?

"Networks and marketers continue to think about how the break from program to commercial back to program can be much more clouded, more obfuscated," said John Moore, exec VP-director of media services at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen agency. With DVRs allowing people to skip ads altogether, marketers appear ready -- shockingly -- to give up some of their screen time in hopes that TV show content will keep viewers from leaving. The challenge: "Thinking about what's in it for the consumer," he added.

Not every program has content that readily works alongside commercials. So CNN is taking this step gingerly. "We aren't going to do this across the board in every daypart and every program. It's got to make sense," said Greg D'Alba, exec VP and chief operating officer of CNN advertising sales. He calls the insertion of content during "John King" ad breaks—the only regularly scheduled CNN program that has any sort of graphic element placed alongside commercials—a "test" that could be used elsewhere on the schedule if feedback is positive and similar content can be made to work with other programming.

Bubbling idea
Others have experimented with similar ideas. Interpublic's DraftFCB approached NBC about having a "split screen" during its now-canceled "Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m., so that viewers could see a commercial and also see what Mr. Leno and others were up to, according to a spokesman for the agency. The idea was scuttled after NBC ended the show. Mr. Moore's Mullen has talked with ESPN about having an advertiser's logo or the first few seconds of a commercial appear on a screen behind on-air personnel during a show, then letting the content on the screen gradually fill the TV view.

CNN's foray comes as the Time Warner cable-news network has been suffering from lackluster ratings during its weekday prime-time schedule. If the method is successful during "John King," which airs at 7 p.m., CNN could have a better crowd for its first prime-time program, "Campbell Brown," at 8 p.m. "If it creates a better viewership and higher ratings , I think that's great," said Mr. D'Alba.

The new on-air "window" has its roots in CNN coverage of live political events, said David Bohrman, CNN's senior VP-Washington bureau chief. With viewers tuning in for election coverage and results in 2006 and 2008, the network gave them information and updates during ads, he said, with "banner boards" at the bottom of the TV screen. "By the time we got to the inauguration, we had upgraded our technology and were able to put video in that little thing," he explained. With "John King" viewed as something of a political-coverage linchpin, offering similar information during commercials made sense.

Other TV networks have found adding content to ad breaks helps viewership. At Walt Disney's ESPN, sports fans are regularly treated to sports news running in tickers at the bottom of the TV screen during ad breaks of programs with news content (games and long-form programs don't have tickers). Executives have found that viewers keep their eyes on the advertising 81% of the time, said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's senior VP-research and analytics.

Stock-quote tickers are standard during ad breaks on NBC Universal's CNBC and News Corp.'s Fox Business Channel; viewers expect such stuff. At CNBC, "we feel it does help our advertisers, and we do see this as a way to retain viewership during commercial breaks," said Robert Foothorap, VP-global ad sales at CNBC.

MSNBC has in recent months added mini-segments during its "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" and "The Rachel Maddow Show" to ad breaks, according to a spokesman for the network. The hosts may bring up a new topic in a 30-second or one-minute segment, and executives believe adding the content conditions viewers to stick around during commercials, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the extra screen time doesn't seem to be affecting the crew on CNN's "John King." Viewers can see a camera is trained on their activity -- moving chairs around, talking with the host -- but "by and large, the staff has completely forgotten that it's there," said Mr. Bohrman.

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