At a mid-December meeting of executives from NBC, Philips Electronics and its media-buying firm, Carat, Mr. Williams expressed appreciation for a novel ad ploy. Philips had purchased all the national ad time during the Dec. 4, 2006, broadcast and given most of it to NBC News, presenting only three commercials that took up just 75 seconds (instead of the usual 14 commercials totaling seven minutes).
"It allowed him to add more stories, and we basically supported editorial," said Martha Cleary, a Carat VP-group media director, who was present at the event.
Now there is a sense that the evening newscast, derided in recent years as withering and irrelevant, is fast becoming a place to experiment with new commercial ideas. On Oct. 10, Fidelity was the sole sponsor for NBC's broadcast, with time given back to the show, according to one person familiar with the situation. ABC News has in the past year run eight different Monday broadcasts with just one sponsor and expects to do more going forward. CBS's "60 Minutes" also has worked with Philips, and the news division is open to exploring a similar arrangement for its daily evening news.
And why not? The news programs need the boost, slotted as they are in early evening, when many working Americans have yet to arrive home. Many of office-bound viewers turn to the web for their daily news instead. Moreover, the newscasts' audience continues to age. Media buyers buy advertising against news audiences, using a 35-to-64 or 50-plus age range. The average age of viewers of the three broadcast evening newscasts is 60, according to analysis by Magna Global.
The Monday-night broadcasts on ABC News were sponsored solely by Pfizer or CVS, with five minutes of extra time devoted to special reports on crisis situations in developing countries and solutions to U.S. issues including methamphetamine abuse. During one broadcast, Pfizer ran a two-and-a-half-minute-long ad for anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex, whose sales had been affected by concerns about a rival medication, Vioxx.
More to come
The ideas tested during the nightly news have potential -- and not just on the ad side. "I would expect to see more of this" during the next 12 months, said Jon Banner, executive producer for ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson." "This is really an attempt by us to change the game in terms of the amount of news and information in the broadcast." With more time for content, they can do more special projects that help them stand apart from rivals, he said.
Advertisers have begun to embrace the notion of buying all the ad time in a particular program, an echo of methods used at the dawn of TV. Nissan has been the sole sponsor of the two season premieres of "Heroes" on NBC, for example. By eliminating the usual array of messages from others, marketers ensure their promotions stand out. This stuff isn't cheap; advertisers usually have to pay a premium to ensure networks don't lose out on revenue by running fewer ads. To gain its NBC News roost, Philips paid $2 million for a package of advertising across NBC Universal outlets.
Altering ad inventory in comedies and dramas is often a complex task, however. News programs, on the other hand, are "formulaic," said Eric Plaskonos, director-brand communications at Philips North America, which also purchased all the national ad time on a single broadcast of CBS's "60 Minutes" in 2005; it's easier to monkey around with segments that run the same way every time. News staffs can maneuver on the fly, since they are typically working on more stories than a single broadcast can hold.
The solo sponsorships offer another kind of aid: They can save newscasts' older viewers from having to watch what seems like an endless litany of ads from pharmaceutical companies, the programs' top sponsors. On evening-news broadcasts, "there is a particular burnout factor" from drug ads, said Philips' Mr. Plaskonos; a single sponsorship might remedy the situation.