NBC's Pod Plan: Share Top Slots

'Hybrid' Spots That Promote Both Marketers and Shows Are Net's Latest Ploy to Keep Viewers in Seats

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TV networks have long reserved the choicest spots during commercial breaks for promoting their own shows, but as advertisers demand better, more-accountable ways to reach consumers more inclined to skip the ad breaks, NBC is hatching a new "hybrid" pod -- part show promotion, part ad.
'Create your own hero': Sprint spot at beginning of ad break tells viewers to stick around to find out how to develop a character online.
'Create your own hero': Sprint spot at beginning of ad break tells viewers to stick around to find out how to develop a character online.

An ad from Sprint airing during "Heroes" is one example of the form. When the sci-fi drama stops, viewers see a message lasting about 15 seconds drawn in comic-book colors that tells them to stick around to learn how they can go online and create their own hero character. Then the Sprint ad airs, followed by a longer promo telling them what they can do online. Before the unwitting couch potato knows it, he is smack dab in the midst of a commercial break.

"You have to do it if you're going to spend the kind of dollars that people do on TV. If you don't have something that keeps the viewers interested, they are going to DVR you or get up and go get a sandwich," said Anita Newton, Sprint's VP-media planning and integration.

Sharing the goods
With marketers now paying based on how many people watch ad breaks, networks have to take decisive steps to keep their viewers from rooting about. They cannot keep those spots in an ad break when consumers are most likely to be watching -- the first spot in a pod and the last one before the show begins again -- to themselves. Creating "customized content" for particular programs is gaining traction, said Mike Pilot, NBC Universal's president-sales and marketing. "We need to evolve the ad structure" and "enhance the effectiveness of using our content for advertisers to deliver their messages," he said.

Sprint's "Create Your Hero" effort, by WPP Group's MindShare, is expected to last into next year, Ms. Newton said, and represents more emphasis on tailoring advertising to specific shows. Because of the complex nature of hybrids, collaboration must begin earlier than ever. "If you are starting at the upfront, you're too late," she said.

Verizon Wireless and American Express also are using this format. A recent end-of-break Verizon Wireless ad shown during ABC's "Pushing Daisies" told viewers how to get previews of "Lost" before it makes its debut next year. The telecommunications company has run similar efforts across different networks, said Lou Rossi, director-media and sponsorships. American Express ran a group of promos and ads during select programs last season aimed at getting its members to seek out sneak previews of the shows. The American Express ads dominated the commercial breaks.

The new hybrid format may end a long-standing point of frustration between marketers and TV networks. "Our biggest competitor is actually the networks we're buying time on," who often seize the first or last seconds in a commercial break to advertise their own shows, said Lisa Herdman, VP-associate director of network buying at RPA, which ran a hybrid for Honda on NBC earlier this year.

Normal rates
Surprisingly, networks are not seeking a premium in exchange for the coveted ad space. "In general, these are fully funded by the marketer, including the production fees. It's kind of interesting that they are taking their brands and completely borrowing the equity from one of those content partners -- at their cost," said Chris Boothe, president-chief activation officer at Starcom USA.

As the hybrid develops, that may lead to new tension: "At the end of the day, our own message is the priority message for us," said Verizon Wireless' Mr. Rossi.

Ultimately, the very architecture of the commercial break could be under scrutiny. "If we find out that a genre -- movie companies, car companies, who knows? -- retains the most audience, we are going to put those in the first spot, because that's just good business," said Joe Abruzzese, president-advertising sales, Discovery Networks U.S.
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