While presenting next fall's prime-time lineup to advertisers yesterday, Fox executives unveiled a concept they dubbed "remote-free TV," an obvious gambit to keep viewers from zapping past ads or clicking away from the network during commercial breaks. Fox will limit the advertising inventory available in two high-concept dramas, "Fringe" and "Dollhouse," so the programs have "more entertainment for the consumer" and "more impact for your commercials," Jon Nesvig, the network's president-sales, said at the presentation.
Half the advertising
Fox said the two new shows will contain about half the advertising of a typical network program. Most network shows run about 10 to 12 minutes of advertising per hour, with more time devoted to their own promotions, as well as commercials and promos from local affiliates. Fox's gambit would reduce much of that and, in the process, give advertisers who do get into the programs a better chance to have their messages resonate with viewers.
Fox's move takes place as clutter on TV is at a relative high. A 2007 study found that the average amount of airtime allocated by broadcast networks to either commercials or promotions for network shows per hour was flat at about 15 minutes last year after rising 3% in 2005. On cable, growth in commercial or promotion time slowed to 1% from 5.5% in 2005, according to the study from MindShare, a WPP Group media-buying firm.
Media buyers fully expect Fox to seek a premium for the opportunity to run ads in a program with fewer of them. Interpublic Group's Deutsch has arranged to have client DirecTV sponsor select cable programs with vastly reduced commercial loads, said Peter Gardiner, the agency's chief media officer.
"The research that came out of it shows that consumers get it. The purchase intent, the attention to advertising, the recall scores are radically higher than for run-of-the-mill shows," Mr. Gardiner said. "I think, absolutely, it's worth paying more."
Indeed, Fox's attention-grabbing idea comes after a range of marketers have been testing it for some time. Philips Electronics has been trying the idea on both cable and broadcast, sponsoring an October 2005 airing of "60 Minutes" on CBS, a late 2006 broadcast of "NBC Nightly News" and a November 2006 broadcast of a college-football game on TBS -- all with fewer commercials and more time for the shows themselves. Likewise, Fox allowed Ford Motor to sponsor season premieres of "24" in 2002 and 2003 that were virtually commercial free, save for longer-than-usual ads from Ford at the beginning and end of the show.
What makes Fox's idea more intriguing is the fact that the network has promised it for an entire season of each program, not just a single episode. That means the ultimate question may be whether TV networks can run fewer ads in general, rather than during selected programs or on a one-off basis.
For decades, TV networks were judged based on the ratings their programs generated. Last year, however, the ad industry moved to ratings for the commercial breaks that interrupt those shows. "We've gotten to the point where we are measuring performance now based on how the nonprogram time does, as opposed to the whole show," said John Swift, an exec VP at PHD, an Omnicom Group media-buying firm. "It's putting accountability on how the nonprogram time performs and has provided real incentive for the networks to do things to increase their performance for that because there's revenue attached to it."
Economics at play
Fox's decision to run fewer ads in two of its more buzzed-about shows could hint at some of the economics at play. "Fringe" comes from J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of the ABC hit "Lost," and is one of the more anticipated programs of the new season, according to media buyers. "Dollhouse" comes from Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." Both programs are intricate, densely plotted affairs and have science fiction at their core -- elements that usually require a substantial financial investment. By securing a premium from select advertisers who are more directly tied to the shows, Fox might garner a greater level of support for two programs for which it has higher-than-usual hopes.
Fox has developed a reputation for testing new ad ideas, but not all of them have developed long shelf lives. In 2005, for example, Fox partnered with ad-targeting firm Visible World to offer advertisers the ability to "tweak" their ads; marketers could digitally alter voice-overs, scripts, graphic elements and other images to make an ad appeal, for example, to teens in one instance and seniors in another.
The network didn't find a lot of demand for the service, Fox executives said later. Last year, Fox tested running short bits of animation featuring an oddball taxi-driver character named Oleg during ad breaks to see if the funny bits would keep viewers glued. The idea so far hasn't seemed to gain much traction, though the network has given indications it will keep experimenting.
Not the only network
Fox isn't the only broadcast network testing how commercials ought to be run. The fledgling CW has been running themed ads called "content wraps" as well as shorter ad bits known as "cwickies." NBC has offered marketers the chance to tailor particular commercials to the exact programs in which they run.
The call to reduce overall ad clutter doesn't seem to be persuading ABC from exploring whether it can add more commercials to its online web player, where up until now it has let only one marketer sponsor each program with just one ad during each break.