The network, owned by General Electric, the lead suitor in the Vivendi Universal Entertainment sweepstakes, recently announced that it was creating one-minute mini-movies or 1MM's that would be embedded in spot pods in order to keep viewers watching during stations breaks.
According to executives with knowledge, the first 1MMs are scheduled to air later this month during the "Tonight Show." "Henry Tammer-Prodigy Bully," which was written and directed by Hank Perlman, a partner at the commercial production house Hungry Man in New York, is expected to be the first mini-movie to air. "Henry" was shot as four separate one-minute episodes that will air in 30-second installments within ad pods. Each half-minute episode ends with the line "to be continued," in order to keep audiences from turning off the next installment in a later ad pod. "Henry" is a mockumentary about a child genius who plays a violin, but is also a violent bully with severe discipline problems.
In order to make room for the movies, NBC will be cutting back program time rather than spot time, a move that could also save money in the long run for the network because the mini-movies, so far are very inexpensive to make. "Henry Tammer" cost approximately $65,000 to produce. The average 30 second spot costs about $300,000.
"It was a fun format to work in because it was similar to commercials," said Perlman. "We shot it in digital video, on mini-DV tapes. And I got people I've worked with on spots to pitch in, because they liked the idea. It was a labor of love for everybody."
Perlman said NBC had to structure a new deal for the format in order to determine payments for Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America members. "It's not a half-hour show and it's not commercials either," said Perlman. "People got paid, but they didn't get paid what they normally get paid, that's the best way to put it."
While many people in the production welcome the new format because it may create more work in an industry that has been sorely hurt by the advertising recession, there are some misgivings.
"Everyone is groping for a way to keep people from running to the bathroom during commercials," said Steve Dickstein, president of commercial production house Partizan Films. "But does this mean commercial breaks are so boring to consumers that the stations are going to invest money to keep people watching? In other words, the networks are telling advertisers it's our responsibility to keep people in their seats during commercial breaks. That's taking the responsibility away from the advertiser to keep people there." Dickstein believes that advertisers, not the networks, should create commercials that are more interesting, humorous and compelling, in other words, more creative.
%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Meanwhile, NBC has been experimenting for some time now with hotswitching, which is the practice of moving directly from one show to another without stopping for a cluster of spots.
"Ad pods that appear between programs rather than in the middle of shows are the most ignored spots on television," said Brad Adgate, senior-VP, director of research at Horizon Media in New York. "Hotswitching is intended to maintain your audience through the gap, and prevent channel switching. It's growing in popularity. NBC has been doing it for 3 or 4 years."
"The hotswitch is seamless," said Alan Wurtzl, president of research media development at NBC. "We do it in primetime and we encourage our affiliate stations to hotswitch from local news to the 'Today Show' or the 'Nightly News.' It's an effective way to keep the audience flow."
Innovations like mini-movies and hotswitching are the latest indications that the rules of television are going through a period of reinvention, faced with the challenges of TiVo and multichannel clutter. But in the end, Wurtzl pointed out that "these things don't make a bad show into a success." But he did acknowledge that "they minimize people surfing away and not coming back."