The 9 million viewers who tuned in to the program's Tuesday-night premiere watched FBI agent Olivia Dunham untangle a mystery that involved foiling a flesh-eating virus, taking LSD and floating in a sensory-deprivation tank. They also were introduced to Fox's "Remote-Free TV," which meant the show contained half the amount of commercials normally found during prime-time.
The initial read is that the idea seems to work. Brand recall of ads that appeared during the first episode of "Fringe" was 32% higher than that of commercials appearing in traditional broadcast-TV programs, according to Nielsen IAG. The level of "program engagement," or audience attentiveness, for "Fringe" was the second highest among debut episodes on broadcast TV in the past year (only NBC's "Chuck" did better, IAG said). In the current TV season, audience attentiveness for "Fringe" is only trumped by that for CBS's "Swingtown" and the CW's "One Tree Hill," according to IAG.
More value for ads
The theory behind the move is that ads can't make as great an impact when viewers can skip past them or have to watch so many in the course of an hour-long drama. Fox's solution, announced at this year's upfront sales presentation, is to cut the amount of ads, yet charge more for them. Other networks have flirted with this notion, but never on the scale that the News Corp. network is attempting. (Another drama, "Dollhouse," is expected to run with the same format when it debuts later this season.)
"This is being driven by [people like] Kim Kadlec at Johnson & Johnson, who over the last few years have put the networks under pressure to deliver and so, Fox is, 'OK, we hear it. We're going to do it, prove [the ads] deliver more value and [ask clients] to pay more for it.' If Fox proves that, you'll see less clutter on TV," said Alan Gould, co-CEO at Nielsen IAG, a service that tracks viewer response to and recall of TV advertising.
The hope is that shorter ad breaks "prevents time-shifting" by viewers with digital video recorders, said Carrie Drinkwater, senior VP-director of broadcast at Havas' MPG. If Fox is successful, she said, "then the model should expand to other shows, other properties, other networks." At the same time, networks have to make certain they can keep afloat financially when reducing commercial time. "The issue for doing it has been the dollars and cents involved, because it's hard to make up the revenue," said John Swift, exec VP-managing partner at Omnicom Group's PHD U.S.
Still waiting for results
If "Fringe" boasts good commercial ratings, buyers said, advertisers may show more interest in using the technique on a wider basis. Commercial ratings, known as C3, typically aren't available for a week or more after a program airs, so it won't be immediately known if "Fringe's" shorter commercial pods got better viewing than those of normal length.
Others believe the format will have legs, but in a limited fashion. "When you reduce clutter, you do get better unaided recall," said Pam Zucker, who monitors emerging ad formats and technologies as exec VP-marketplace ignition at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest. "But to date, we haven't seen where it totally makes up for the pricing differential, so I think it's a hard model, therefore, to take over the marketplace."
This stuff isn't always easy to put into practice. Network affiliates and local stations also get to run ads during prime-time shows, and these plans can often require them to follow suit with whatever the network is doing. A commercial-free show sometimes means no local ads, either -- not necessarily music to a local ad-sales executive, particularly at a time when local stations are facing an economic pinch. Local, or spot, TV advertising was off 10.2% in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Another potential challenge: Running fewer ads could also prompt issues with "traffic," giving networks less room to maneuver when it comes to keeping rivals in the show but in separate ad breaks.
Will it work?
Under Remote-Free TV, the national ads consisted only of occasional reminders that told viewers "Fringe" would return in 60 seconds or 90 seconds. Advertisers in the debut episode included Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and AT&T. But Fox needed to accommodate affiliates too, so two longer pods that ran during the debut episode's 95-minute run were longer than other breaks and contained promos for local Fox news and Fox network programs, as well as a commercial or two.
Can TV run on fewer ads if advertisers pay more for them? It's a question that has come up time and time again as more marketers seek to finely tune their advertising, placing more money against specific pieces of programming. Philips Electronics made waves, for example, when it bought up all the ad time during an episode of CBS's "60 Minutes" and gave some of the time back to the broadcast for news stories. Nissan Motor has in the past sponsored the season premiere of NBC's "Heroes," running fewer ads, but ensuring all were from Nissan.
That's not to say the method doesn't have its uses. By reducing ads, Fox is drawing advertisers to two high-quality dramas that might get less attention in a crowded field. "Fringe" and "Dollhouse" are backed by hit-maker producers J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, and are no doubt costly to produce. Fox's maneuver might serve to safeguard its investment in those two shows. The format also offers opportunities for advertisers to devise distinctive ads that could play off "Fringe" and its themes. "I hope it does become more prevalent," said MediaVest's Ms. Zucker, "but I don't think it will become pervasive."