The NBC local affiliate in New York, WNBC, decided to air a preseason football game last Thursday during prime time rather than the finale of "Last Comic Standing." "Last Comic Standing" was also pre-empted for football in Cleveland and Baltimore, two other TV markets within the top 25 in the U.S. In that episode, 25-year-old comedian Iliza Shlesinger became the first female contestant to win in the show's six seasons. In New York, at least, "Last Comic Standing" ran in the wee hours of the morning (although viewers in the New York market were told the episode would air immediately after the game at 10 p.m.; instead "America's Got Talent" was shown).
What certain viewers missed -- along with the festivities -- was the capper to a unique ad plan for "Last Comic Standing," created between NBC, Honda and Honda's advertising and buying firm, RPA of Santa Monica, Calif. Known as "Last Comic Driving," the plan involved a bunch of comedians who weren't performing in the show appearing in ads for the Honda Pilot. They rode in the car with one of the show's hosts, and did a bit of their routine. Viewers were able to vote for their favorite online and then were going to be able to watch the winner do a set slightly longer than a 30-second ad at the contest's end.
NBC even aired the show-specific promo in the same ad break each week, the better to see if viewers could grow accustomed or even get enthusiastic about looking out for something that was designed to be more entertaining than the venerable 30-second commercial.
Crafting ads that are tailored to specific programs, plots and characters is a practice that is gaining more popularity as networks and marketers try to thwart ad-skipping and goose ratings for commercial breaks. Under ad-sales chief Mike Pilot, NBC Universal has placed more emphasis on this technique, even created a division that is housed on both the East and West coasts and assigning an executive to shepherd projects between both ad-sales and creative executives.
As the "Last Comic Standing" glitch reveals, this initiative also comes with challenges: Ads that tie in to a particular piece of content rise and fall not only on the success of the show but the myriad factors that can knock the program off the air.
Advertisers and networks who tap this method are blazing new trails. For years, after all, the way to use TV was to spray TV commercials everywhere for the broadest possible reach. These days, as groups of consumers begin to fragment around a dizzying array of media outlets, more marketers and TV networks are opting to drill down and target the audience that coalesces around "Heroes," for instance, or the Lifetime cable network, or a website aimed at aficionados of grilling outdoors. Reaching these viewers in new ways is tough work. These ideas require weeks if not months of planning. Last year, for example, NBC and Publicis Groupe's Starcom met months in advance of the upfront market to devise a way to have a message from insurer AllState tied to a specific episode of "Friday Night Lights."
Sometimes, unforseen circumstances can get in the way. Sprint devised an interesting link with NBC's "Heroes" last season, only to see it halted when TV writers went on strike and production of the program was halted. NBC, Sprint and WPP Group ad-buying firm MindShare intend to create a "Heroes" affiliation in the coming season, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Network has little control
And just as NBC has little control over striking writers, it cannot always intercede when an affiliate or one of its stations decides to insert football for an evening. News Corp.'s Fox faced a similar challenge of getting affiliates to support an intricate branded-entertainment deal when it allowed Ford to sponsor commercial-free season premieres of "24" in 2002 and 2003. To make the sponsorships work, the network had to give its affiliates ad time elsewhere on its schedule to make up for time they lost in the commercial-free broadcast
Likewise, WNBC's football game means Honda's promotion missed out on "Last Comic Standing's" prime-time New York audience. According to Nielsen Media Research, "Last Comic Standing" reached an average of 281,000 viewers in the New York area between May 29 and July 24, not to mention an average of 82,000 households in the Cleveland-Akron market, and an average of 42,000 households in and around Baltimore. In total, "Last Comic Standing" reached an average of 4.79 million live and same-day viewers between May 22 and Aug. 7 this year, Nielsen said.
Honda and NBC are unruffled by the hiccup. "We're extremely pleased with the 'Last Comic Driving' program and have gotten great feedback from our advertising partners. We'll work with them to address any outstanding issues," NBC said in a statement.
"The loss of impressions for the finale of 'Last Comic Standing' will be handled by RPA and NBC. This is not a major loss to the branded entertainment deal nor the media buy," RPA said in a statement. The agency said both it and Honda were "pleased" with viewers' "enthusiasm for the program."
Viewers who posted comments at NBC's "Last Comic Standing" website seemed anything but pleased by the pre-emption of last week's program.
"Wish I would have seen this on TV! WNBC in NY aired a preseason football game. I guess they decided the finale to a 12-week season doesn't matter to the viewers who wasted their time watching," a fan who gave his name as Scott Silva wrote on an NBC comments board about the show. "Thanks a lot, NBC, for wasting my Thursday nights this summer. It's like buying a book that has the last chapter ripped out! It's nice to see the way NBC treats their viewers."
In Cleveland, a viewer who calls herself "Kim" said: "The worst part was, the game was delayed for an hour (at the same time that 'LCS' was showing) and on the screen all they had was a picture of the rained out stadium! Please replay the finale!"
A "Last Comic Standing" spokeswoman said NBC Universal intends to re-air the program's finale on Aug. 15 on Bravo between 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern time. The full episode will also be available on nbc.com, although it was not available Aug. 8, when fans who had missed the finale went looking to watch it.