'A' Game Will Dominate Upfront

Prime Pod Position Will Be Crucial Since Viewers Stick Around for First Spot

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"Gimme an A!" might be the rallying cry of this year's upfront negotiations, with more marketers demanding to be given the A position -- or first slot in a commercial pod -- as research reveals it's the one most consumers stick around for. Hill Holiday." />
As negotiations start to hinge on metrics such as engagement and commercial ratings, the placement of ads within pods becomes more crucial, putting more pressure on networks to program their pods as they would their shows. The A slot on broadcast TV networks got 3% more viewers than the rest of the commercial break in 2006, while cable posted a 6% higher rating for the same time slot, according to Magna Global's annual Commercial Pod Index study.

Now the broadcast networks are determined to make the A position their million-dollar baby. ABC sales chief Mike Shaw announced at last month's development meetings in Los Angeles his intention to start A spots as an extension of shows such as "According to Jim" or "Ugly Betty," where a commercial could start out as an ad in a magazine or on the characters' TV set. The CW, meanwhile, has experimented with "content wraps" since its inception last year, weaving sponsored mini-shows in between its commercials.

Opening pitch important
"I don't think there's going to be one standard across all networks for all clients," said Stacey Sherpatin, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Boston-based Hill Holiday. "Commercial ratings are obviously available, and we can use them now, but research has shown that the first position is important. It's incumbent upon us as agencies to make sure the creative is compelling."

On cable, 60% of all the A position spots are programming plugs. Recently, though, more cable networks are dedicating the inventory to their programs' sponsors, as seen recently on Bravo's "Top Chef," USA's "Character Uncovered" spots for Tanqueray and A&E's "Conversations With the Family" branded ads for "The Sopranos."

Only Fox is challenging the importance of the A position, having put its own spin on commercial engagement last week when it premiered eight-second original interstitials featuring a character named Oleg the cab driver. The spots were inserted randomly over the course of an hour's worth of pods for shows such as "24," and by Thursday had quadrupled the number of unique visits to their dedicated site on Fox.com.

Rachel Mueller-Lust, exec VP-networks at IAG Research, said it's "too early to tell" whether Fox's experiment is a success, but applauds it for taking a risk by using nonbranded content as a tool for ad engagement. But even if Fox's formula-busting approach is a long-term hit, that doesn't mean all networks will follow.
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