With more cable competition and channel surfing at an all-time high, cable networks are being pressed to find ways to reduce the clutter advertisers say is strangling their commercial messages.
Some networks say they're experimenting with alternate advertising deals, such as corporate sponsorships, ad exclusivity and cross-promotions with other media to solve the problem.
HARDER TO STAND OUT
"The traditional model of just buying time on a network-whether cable or broadcast-is slowly going out the window; advertisers want to cut through the clutter," said Bill McGowan, senior VP-advertising sales for Discovery Communications. "It's a [commercial]-cluttered world, and it's harder and harder for your message to stand out."
Steve Grubbs, media buyer for BBDO Worldwide, New York, said advertisers want networks to provide them more than just commercial slots.
"One of the complaints of our clients is that their 30- and 15-second spots tend to get lost in all of the clutter out there," he said.
One alternative: corporate sponsorships that let an advertiser build brand image and reach its target audience unfettered by other ad competition.
Corporate sponsors aren't exactly new to TV. Broadcast networks have sold special single-sponsor programming since the 1950s. In the most recent example, Ford Motor Co. sponsored NBC's 1995 telecast of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," which ran without commercial interruption.
Rainbow Media's Bravo sells sponsorships, which executives said cut commercial clutter and let an advertiser play off the network's specific brand image.
The network, which has sold sponsorships since 1990, cuts one- to three-year deals that give marketers such as Saab Cars USA ("Inside the Actor's Studio") and Texaco ("Performing Arts Showcase") 60-second spots at the top and bottom of programming segments, which run without commercial interruptions.
Federal Express Corp. recently signed on to sponsor Bravo's Monday night "World Cinema" block.
"They wanted to be perceived as a worldwide courier than simply a domestic one," said Ed Carroll, senior VP-marketing for Bravo.
But BBDO's Mr. Grubbs said corporate sponsors are now demanding more than two commercials serving as program bookends.
"How much can you afford to pay for a show of that nature with just two 30-second spots at the beginning and at the end?" he asked. "We'd like some additional exposure in there."
Discovery Communications, with four cable networks, is taking corporate ad sponsorships in another direction, selling "integrated marketing partnerships" that give advertisers commercial exclusivity on Discovery shows.
This year, Discovery sold partnerships for its annual "Eco Challenge" wilderness race, where sponsors including MasterCard International, American Isuzu Motors, AT&T Corp. and Qantas Airways bought exclusive slots.
Discovery may tinker with advertiser partnerships down the road on the recently acquired Travel Channel, Mr. McGowan said.
"We may try to get one cruise line to totally sponsor a program on cruising," he said. "A single-advertiser model with limited interruptions could be more prevalent as [cable network] programming becomes more focused."