'Remote-Free TV' Debuts With Fox's 'Fringe'

Lincoln-Mercury, Paramount Among First to Advertise

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- "Fringe," a new sci-fi drama that makes its debut tomorrow on Fox, relies on lots of farfetched ideas and spurious technologies as the basis of its stories. One intriguing notion the program will introduce isn't crazy at all. The show is expected to run all season with fewer ads than a normal network program, and Fox is charging more than usual for them.
Fox's 'Fringe:' more farfetched ideas, fewer ads.
Fox's 'Fringe:' more farfetched ideas, fewer ads. Credit: Fox

"Fringe" has attracted interest from movie studios and automotive marketers, according to people familiar with the situation. One of these people said Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury and Viacom's Paramount are both on board to advertise in the show.

Bucking the trend
The "Fringe" plan runs counter to how most TV is sold. Over the years, the average amount of airtime devoted by broadcast networks to either commercials or promotions for network shows has risen to about 15 minutes per hour, according to MindShare, a WPP Group media-buying concern. Fox will run "Fringe," a much-buzzed-about hourlong drama from J.J. Abrams, the force behind megahit "Lost" on Walt Disney's ABC, with roughly half the standard amount of ads and network promos.

"If there's one thing I believe will help TV in the future, it is finding ways to make advertising more relevant and to reduce clutter for consumers," said Kris Magel, exec VP-national broadcast director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. "The more you can do that, the less they will seek to avoid it, and the less they seek to avoid it, the better they will remember it and the more it's worth."

Interest in the ad effort behind "Fringe" shows how marketers are furiously seeking out-of-the-box solutions to a pressing, seemingly insurmountable problem. Network TV shows are free to the public, mainly because they are supported by commercials. When that same public gains the ability to fast-forward past advertising or watch TV programs in other settings, such as the web or iTunes, the commercials on TV have less ability to catch the consumer's eye. By reducing the commercial load on "Fringe," Fox is hoping viewers won't find the ad breaks as cumbersome and thus will not feel compelled to zap past them.

So eager are marketers to test out this new method, which Fox has dubbed "Remote-Free TV," that they were willing to pay a premium of 40% to run ads during "Fringe," according to media buyers. That doesn't mean it costs more to run an ad in "Fringe" than in "Grey's Anatomy," for example; just that it costs 40% more than one would normally fork over for the opportunity to place an ad in an untested drama. Fox will also be trying this method with another new program slated to debut later in the season: "Dollhouse," which is produced by Joss Whedon, famous for the WB and UPN drama "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Scattered experiments
This technique has been tried more frequently in recent years. Nissan Motor Co. gained lots of buzz from its association with NBC's "Heroes," and in 2006 sponsored the first episode of the season with a reduced number of ads (the ads that did run were all from Nissan). Philips Electronics got attention in recent years for using a similar technique: buying all the ad time during CBS's "60 Minutes" and NBC's "NBC Nightly News," running fewer ads and giving some of the time back to the news programs so they could run more stories.

Those were one-offs, however. Fox's gambit will let the method stand for an entire season's run of programs. A mock "Remote-Free TV" version of "Fringe" reviewed by Advertising Age doesn't break for an ad until the episode runs for 16 minutes. Only one ad appears. The next break comes at 32 minutes into the program, with two ads. A third break, at 39 minutes, contains two ads and a single promo for a Fox show. Breaks grow more frequent the longer the show goes on; presumably, viewers who have stuck with the plot this deep into the episode will want to stick around and see how the stories end. No ad break contains more than two commercials.

Focused on an FBI agent who investigates a burgeoning series of what may be linked instances of paranormal phenomena, "Fringe" is heady, mysterious and complex -- although the producers weave in elements of popular procedural dramas such as "CSI" or "Law & Order." While advertisers seem willing to embrace the reduced advertising behind the entertainment, success ultimately hinges on whether viewers like the content.
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