More marketers join in ad-free TV trend

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When viewers sit down to enjoy the new season's TV offerings, they might be in for a few pleasant surprises: no ads.

Toyota Motor Corp. is the latest in a growing line of advertisers spending big bucks to present commercial-free premieres of new shows. Toyota has agreed to a deal with NBC to present what is arguably one of the network's riskiest introductions in some years, "Father of the Pride," without commercial interruption.

Neither party wished to comment further, though major network premieres would sell for between $8 million to $10 million, said executives, who point out that such deals are generally part of packages that include spots throughout the series and product placement. Still, $10 million is a lot of money when compared to, say, a $2 million Super Bowl buy.

While there have been numerous pacts between other marketers and networks over the years, the "commercial-free" concept appears to be gaining some ground, despite the potential for failure.

One network sales executive said there are a number of auto companies looking to sign commercial-free deals this coming season. CBS is also said to have been approached to do ad-free premieres or finales of its prized "CSI" franchise, but it has no agreements yet, given the high cost of buying out every ad spot.

string of deals

Bruce Lefkowitz, exec VP-entertainment sales at Fox Cable Group, has just wrapped up his third commercial-free premiere in recent months. FX struck its third deal with pharmaceutical company Stacker 2 for a new energy drink named YJ Stinger, which is sponsoring a commercial-free finale of "Nip/Tuck." XM Satellite Radio agreed to present the second-season premiere. Miller Brewing Co. did the same for "Rescue Me." While cable deals are in the $1 million to $2 million range, finales are generally more expensive than premieres, since the audience grows.

"It is definitely something that is new," says Mr. Lefkowitz, "It has become a point of differentiation." Advertisers not only get "product immersion" but a better read on their return on investment, since vendors generally give them research on how the viewer perceived the product.

The risks are, however, obvious. What if the show's a flop or the creative doesn't deliver the right message? Chris Boothe, exec VP-group client director at Starcom USA, part of Publicis Groupe, was involved in the FX/Miller agreement, and said, "A smart media person would build in a guarantee. It would be part of a larger deal." He added that another advantage is a greater degree of control of the media environment. "We received scripts and were involved in development of `Rescue Me.' That helped us maximize our premiere."

Mark Kaline, global media manager of Ford Motor Co., explains the rationale behind the deals. "It's an attempt to create an island of visibility for yourself. There's no clutter. You can really create a clear channel for yourself. ... We can't do these all the time. When possible, we do them for major launches."

contributing: jean halliday

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