Typical network ads, also known as promos, can last a minute or more, and usually appear right before a program returns from a commercial break. But Fox decided the time had come to defy convention. The network's young viewers "have spent their entire lives filtering out media messages," said Joe Earley, Fox's exec VP-marketing and communications. "What we are trying to do is trick that filter, if only for five seconds."
One of the ads features chef Gordon Ramsay throwing a knife at the screen. The hurled utensil shatters glass, all in the name of getting viewers to tune in to "Kitchen Nightmares." Others spotlight Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, the stars of the sitcom "Back To You," clowning around on set. Another shows the lead actors of New Orleans cop drama "K-Ville" with guns drawn, while a snippet of loud blues music plays in the background.
Everyone is a marketer
Big TV networks make billions of dollars selling 30-second ads to savvy advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever -- even as many of those marketers have begun to look for new ways to hawk their wares on TV. Now the networks are following suit. Just like those savvy advertisers, the networks are marketers, and their main product is their dramas and comedies.
"The traditional promo is still the workhorse, but we are all trying to find little bells and whistles to attach to it," said John Miller, chief marketing officer of the NBC Universal Television Group.
NBC also has begun to run promos that bear little resemblance to the tried-and-true format. Starting Sept. 10, during selected programs, NBC told viewers to stay tuned for previews of its fall shows. Instead of going to a traditional commercial, however, NBC ran spots showing George and Laura, two happy-go-lucky characters driving along in a Honda Accord, talking about programs including "Bionic Woman," "Chuck" and "Journeyman." A few ads later, the two returned with more chatter before NBC ran a preview, making clear that Honda is sponsoring all the activity. During "Deal or No Deal" on Wednesday, NBC will run promos with famous football players talking about its programs, Mr. Miller said.
"It's no secret the networks have often saved some of their best inventory for their own promotions," said Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising for American Honda Motor Co. "I don't mind being a part of that."
Variation on a theme
Experimentation with promos has been going on for some time. CBS has tried different placements and lengths over the years, said George Schweitzer, the network's president of marketing. CBS has struck its own deal with an automaker, Cadillac, to promote its Monday-night lineup. It includes a special section on the CBS website dubbed "The Cadillac of Premieres."
NBC has even run promos with Verizon Wireless' popular "Can you hear me now?" character. ABC recently has been running footage of programs such as "Grey's Anatomy" backed by music from bands such as the Fray.
These days, however, the stakes are much higher. The majority of new fall shows flop, and getting people to tune in to them in truly measurable fashion is harder than ever. Thanks to new technology, viewers are able to watch programs online or on mobile devices, which do little to boost the industry's standard Nielsen ratings.
Among network executives, a feeling is emerging that promos must do two things: Build viewer awareness and get couch potatoes to tune in, and spark buzz among younger fans, who might promote a show by word-of-mouth or even send video clips to one another. People in their 20s and 30s "find things and they immediately share them with their friends. We try to take advantage of that as much as possible," said Mike Benson, ABC Entertainment's exec VP-marketing.
Following cable's lead
Some cold economic realities also are at play. The networks "are losing viewers. They are seeing what the cable networks are doing" in terms of new ad formats, said Lisa Herdman, VP-associate director of network buying at RPA, Honda's ad agency. "They are becoming more flexible with this type of thing," she added.
Fox's promo idea follows the network's effort to run small video vignettes featuring an animated character known as Oleg during its commercial breaks. Tested last spring, the experiment aimed to keep viewers from changing channels or zapping past ads. The five-second promos were designed simply to build awareness of Fox shows in a surprising way, Mr. Earley said.
The networks are already starting to disagree on the best way to upgrade this venerable standby. A five-second promo in the middle of the pod could "make it feel like there's more time and more stuff before you get back to your show," said ABC's Mr. Benson.
Not if it's done right, said Fox's Mr. Earley. "The simplicity of them keeps it from feeling like clutter."