Commercial Ratings Spur Cablers to Experiment With Ad Breaks

Some Give Up Own Promos, Try One Ad Per Pod

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If advertisers start buying TV time based on commercial ratings, as ABC's President-Sales Mike Shaw and others have predicted, networks will have a greater incentive to keep viewers tuned in during breaks -- which means networks are looking at re-jiggering pod structure, rethinking promo time and even cutting commercial inventory.
E! said it would give up to advertisers what had traditionally been a cable promo staple, the 'A' or first-in-pod position.
E! said it would give up to advertisers what had traditionally been a cable promo staple, the 'A' or first-in-pod position.

Already Comcast's E! and Style networks have introduced isolated messages and programming integrated into pods, Turner's TBS is launching minute-long, humor-themed commercial pods that interrupt its comedic fare, and The Weather Channel has made commercial breaks shorter but more frequent.

The CW introduced at its upfront a commercial concept coined "content wraps" or "CWs" -- minishows featuring advertiser brands that stretch across multiple ad breaks. More changes will be on the way if advertisers agree to buy TV time based on an average commercial rating, network executives said.

Average commercial rating
Nielsen already offers networks and buyers minute-by-minute ratings but intends in the 2006-2007 season to introduce an average commercial rating for each program.

Mike Lotito, CEO of Media IQ, which studies the affect of commercial clutter on viewers, said there's a direct correlation between the number of commercials in a break and viewer retention in that break. "The greater number of messages in a pod, the greater chance a consumer will leave it," he said. "We're bored by commercials."

Adds Liz Janneman, senior VP-cable ad sales at The Weather Channel: "Networks can change the currency but that's not the solution. The solution is to change the way you program."

E!'s President Ted Harbert knows that. The 29-year veteran of the TV business has seen the number of commercial messages creep up slowly and steadily throughout his career. This year, he decided to do something about it. While he's not necessarily decreasing the overall commercial time on E! and Style, the networks he helms, he is playing around with pods, adding single-spot breaks, freezing programming to jump directly and unexpectedly into a break, and eliminating network promos by wrapping them into programs.

'Difficult' decision
Earlier this year, E! said it would give up to advertisers what had traditionally been a cable promo staple -- the "A" or first-in-pod position -- a decision the network's Exec VP-Marketing Suzanne Kolb described as "difficult."

E! is trying out different ways to promote its own shows without adding to the commercial clutter. Last week in its entertainment-themed clip show "The Soup," host Joel McHale did a segment on what's coming up on E!, highlighting things that ordinarily would have been featured in promos. That eliminated the time the network would have spent during breaks promoting itself. Ms. Kolb said they'll be able to see within the week if the tactic helped the network do better in minute-by-minute ratings.

But Ms. Kolb acknowledges that what works on her channel might not work on every other cabler -- or on the broadcast networks. "There's a little bit of that snack-food mentality at E!, so there are opportunities for us to play into that with the way we treat our own promos, our advertisers' messages and our programming," she said.

Critics say ...
The commercial-ratings plan, introduced by Nielsen and endorsed by the broadcast networks, has its share of critics -- among them Media IQ's Mr. Lotito and Magna Global's audience research chief Steve Sternberg. Mr. Lotito said commercial ratings are "a more fair and correct way of having clients pay for what they get" but won't fundamentally change the effectiveness of TV advertising. Mr. Sternberg laments that they're not specific enough, often include a mix of program and commercial time, and lose credibility by including VCR recording.

But Harry Keeshan, exec VP-national broadcast buying at PHD, said the new, creative pod formats spawned by commercial ratings will benefit advertisers. "You have to think of the consumer," he said. If consumers feel less interrupted, they are more likely to stick around for the break. "If people are willing to discuss creative ways to run commercials, I don't think [advertisers] would be opposed to it. ... We're always looking for more ways to get our clients' messages heard."
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