Buyers like Gore TV, but not enough to pay for it

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Looking to buy a 10-second spot on Al Gore's new digital cable network, Current TV? It will cost you the same as the advertiser running a 60-second spot.

That's due to Current's unusual ad sales strategy, which encourages advertisers to sign on as 13- to 15-month-long exclusive sponsors of a pod-the title given to the network's 40-plus programming categories. For that, they get isolated creative brand messages better known as island messages. An advertiser's message runs just after the pod it sponsors, and regardless of length-anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute long-it's priced the same. An advertiser's logo can be incorporated into the pod's graphics.

"We've created a whole new [advertising] language," said Anne Zehren, president of sales and marketing for the new network, who did not specify the rate. "The timing is perfect from an advertiser standpoint because the 30-second spot is basically broken," she said. "We hope to be part of the long-term solution because none of the old rules apply to us."

Advertisers don't mind the disproportional pricing structure, Ms. Zehren claims, because "it's about the message being relevant and if it takes three minutes to do that, great, if it takes 10 seconds to do that, great."

SONY, FERIA IN

But so far, marketers weren't clamoring to get in, despite rock bottom prices. During its first week, the network was practically giving away ads, according to several media buyers. Spot rates ranged from free to a couple hundred dollars-and the network's sell-out levels hovered around 50%. Inaugural advertisers included Sony Electronics and L'Oreal's Feria hair color brand, which each sponsored short-form content segments. Tower Records ran 90-second promos and Converse, Priceline and Geico all had 30-second spots.

Media buyers, however, praised the network's snappy pace and viewer-created content, which came off far livelier than the almost-president.

Though the network that calls itself the TV equivalent of the iPod Shuffle launched last week in 20 million homes, it's impossible to tell how many tuned in because it isn't Nielsen measured. The 18- to 34-year-old-targeted network is a mix of short-form programming that varies from 15 seconds to five minutes, with last week's topics ranging from base jumping to first-time parenting. A quarter of it was viewer-submitted and twice an hour Current breaks in with news, as decided by the day's top Google searches.

Bill Cella, chairman-CEO of Magna Global, media agency for L'Oreal and Sony, said he's "thrilled for our clients that have engaged in it." He said that "when [the network] starts to get into 35 to 40 million homes [it will get] some serious consideration" from buyers. With cable TV, 30 to 40 million household distribution is the tipping point for mass advertiser interest.

"It's certainly innovative in its approach," said Bob Flood, exec VP-director of national electronic investment at Publicis Group's Optimedia. "You're no longer relegated to 30-second spot but can do long-form or consumer generated advertising."

"I think it's phenomenal," said Chris Allen, VP-national broadcast supervisor at Omnicom's GSD&M, Chicago. "I loved their pitch and the concept is really interesting. I watched 20 minutes, it looks sharp."

NOT MEASURED

Current is too small to be measured by Nielsen. Most Nielsen measured cable networks are in at least 50 million homes; a fully distributed network is in the high 80 million range. "[Nielsen measurement] legitimizes it and will legitimize it for a lot of buyers," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research of for Horizon Media. "They say `We're going after 18-34,' well, fine, but what do the numbers say?"

Still others were skeptical of the concept itself.

"You need a good reason to enter the market and I'm not sure trying to reach 18-34-year-olds with TV news is that," said Jason Kinefsky, VP-account director at Havas' MPG. "That demo is going online, not to TV-especially if they have a hard time finding it."

Converse, which is experimenting on Current through its media agency, Sedgwick Road, was one of the original seekers of consumer-created content and this network underscores how far that's come. "Now everything you read is this trend of consumer-created advertising," said John Butler, creative director at Sausalito, Calif.-based agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, which developed the idea of asking consumers to create Converse ads.

Current TV

Self-description: TV equivalent of an iPod Shuffle

Target demo: 18-34-year-olds

Headquarters: San Francisco

Household distribution: 20 million (fully distributed cable networks reach 80 to 90 million)

Availability: DirecTV, select Time Warner and Comcast markets

Channel number in Time Warner’s New York market: 103

Initial advertisers: Sony Electronics, L’Oreal’s Feria, Tower Records, Geico, Priceline, Converse

Going price of a 30-second spot: less than $200

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