Marketers Fight for First in TV-Spot Pods

TV Guide Pushes Nets in Ads, but It Still Can't Grab Best Positioning in Breaks

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New ads from TV Guide set to start airing today seem to be a broadcast network's dream. Each 15-second commercial talks about the program in which it appears -- such as "Grey's Anatomy," "The Office" and "America's Next Top Model" -- and each ad reflects back to viewers their passion for the show and how TV Guide knows they can't wait until the next episode airs. In the meantime, TV Guide is here to help them.
Pitter patter: TV Guide's ads are designed to get viewers 'at their emotional high.'
Pitter patter: TV Guide's ads are designed to get viewers 'at their emotional high.'

With so much flattery and outright promotion for their shows in the air, you'd think TV Guide would have no problem getting the networks to give the ads the placement it wanted: The first ad in the last break of the show, when viewers are often savoring their favorite program's last few moments or looking for previews of the following week's episode. But Alan Cohen, chief marketing officer of Gemstar-TV Guide International, said the company anticipates it will get that placement only 50% of the time.

"In some instances, [networks] have been able to accommodate us, and in others we don't know exactly what the placement will be," he said, though in all cases the ads will appear during the second half of the program. Getting each ad on the air -- tucked into a specific program at a specific range of time -- has been a production in and of itself, he added. "Each one has been a little mini-negotiation."

Network-TV advertising has long been the broadest of brushes, the easiest way to get a message out to the masses in one 30-second swoop, so few marketers really cared when or how their ads ran. These days, however, advertisers are trying to use broadcast TV to make finer points and target audiences in a particular place at a particular time. The trouble? Broadcast networks aren't really ready to make those kinds of deals on an everyday basis.

"Everyone knows that people are paying a lot more attention to the resolution of a drama and to the previews that are coming the next week. The audience doesn't get up at that point in time and we think that's a great place to be," said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust, which oversees marketing for Subway Restaurants. While more marketers will press for such specific placements, he said, "it's still going to be the exception rather than the rule."

Even so, new developments in the ways TV is watched and measured are pushing advertisers to ask more often for precise placement. More viewers are using ad-skipping digital video recorders, and advertisers are now paying for viewership of commercial breaks. So the pressure is on the networks to place ads at times when more people are interested in watching them.

Given that ad breaks are perfect times to channel-surf, use the bathroom or grab a snack, the first and last ads in the break are believed to be the most valuable, as most viewers will see some part of them. As such, networks have long handed them out in an equal fashion to as many marketers as possible, and charged a premium when one advertiser asked for more than a fair share. "To give someone a preferred position, they are screwing somebody else," said one media buyer.

Playing fair
When specific placements are allowed, they are often tied to broader sponsorships, such as product placement within the program or having sports announcers mention an advertiser's name. Without maintaining such control, networks would be forced to alter their sales processes and play favorites, a move that would no doubt threaten their current revenue base.

One classic case of specific placement was carried out in late 2005 at News Corp.'s Fox, which gave Time Warner's AOL a five-second berth at the end of an ad break. Other networks had turned the idea down flat. AOL and its media-buying firm, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative, requested that a longer AOL ad run at the start of the same commercial break. Fox instead required AOL to buy a 30- or 60-second ad in the middle. Giving away two prime placements would give AOL dominance over the ad break and make other commercials less memorable.

From the get-go, TV Guide envisioned specific placement as part of its concept. Each of 13 different ads will play off the program in which they run. An ad appearing in the ABC medical drama "Grey's Anatomy," for example, notes that it will take 601,194 heartbeats before the program returns.

Executives at Cramer-Krasselt, the company's ad agency, wanted to get viewers "when they are primed, get them at their emotional high, when they are about to slide into their emotional low" because their favorite show is about to end, said Dean Hacohen, an executive creative director at the agency.

Selling an ad
So it fell to TV Guide's media-buying firm, WPP Group's MindShare, to get the placement. Executives met with network sales personnel in late spring, months before the campaign was slated to launch, said Renalee Pflug, senior partner-group planning director. "We went to all the networks [and said] this is the campaign. This is the approach. This is our overall strategy and this is the ideal placement of where it should go," she recalled. One key element of the discussions focused on the ads' creative concept, and how it could drive viewers to the network programs where the ads would appear.

TV Guide "likely" paid a premium for the special placement of the ads, said a person familiar with the situation. The company is spending in the range of $20 million on the campaign, which starts during the week the broadcast networks launch most of their fall schedules and lasts through November sweeps.

The launch of the campaign comes at an interesting time for TV Guide and its corporate parent. In 2005, the company revamped its venerable digest-size periodical and remade it into a full-size entertainment magazine, scaling back on TV listings. TV Guide websites have been revamped and expanded in recent months as well. Even so, Gemstar said in July it would "explore strategic alternatives" which could include a sale of the company.
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