TV Upfront

Fox hits roadblock in its plans for limited commercials

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Seth MacFarlane (l.) wants the next season of his Fox show 'Orville' to air with limited commercials, according to buyers.
Seth MacFarlane (l.) wants the next season of his Fox show 'Orville' to air with limited commercials, according to buyers. Credit: Fox

Fox Networks Group had grand ambitions to reduce commercials this season, specifically in its Sunday night block of animation and comedies. The plan was to knock off as much as 40 percent of ad time in more than 40 Sunday nights of the year.

But its plan has hit a snag.

While Fox is still out selling its one-minute commercial breaks, dubbed "just a and z" pods, or Jaz for short, they're currently slated to run on only three Sunday nights next season. Those nights are Oct. 14, Oct. 21 and Nov. 11, according to people familiar with the situation, who note that the dates have changed before and could again.

A Fox spokesman declined to comment on the plans.

Fox was out early with its idea for limited commercials, which it pitched before its upfronts presentation to advertisers this month. But the execution has changed course along the way.

"Every other day they come out with a new way to sell it," one media buyer says.

The roadblocks have come both from Fox's affiliates and its programming division, buyers surmise. Fox's head of ad sales Joe Marchese had been talking with affiliates in an attempt to move local ad breaks out of many Sunday nights, but it doesn't appear that he'll have deals in place in time for this year's upfront negotiations.

But the limited commercial format also caught the attention of Seth MacFarlane, and Fox is now exploring the possibility of selling Jaz pods in the entire season of MacFarlane's sci-fi dramedy "The Orville," which will return midseason on Thursdays.

(The Jaz pod gets its name from the "A" and "Z" positions in a typical commercial break, the first and last ones to run, with others in between; a Jaz pod would include only those two spots.)

Fox is also selling Jaz pods in shows like "Wicked Tuna" on National Geographic and "The Weekly" on FX. And it's holding some inventory aside in the hopes of adding more Jaz pods to additional Sunday nights or other nights of the week, according to buyers.

While Fox's plans are more modest for next season than perhaps its initial pitch to the marketplace, most of the industry agrees the efforts are commendable, and on the nights Fox does air its shows with a reduce commercial load, viewers will see a noticeable difference.

NBC Universal

NBC Universal has been smoother in rolling out its limited commercial offering, according to buyers. The peacock is selling prime pods, one-minute breaks that will take up the first commercial break of a show. That would essentially create a limited commercial experience in the first 20 minutes of a program.

The plan is to cut the number of ads in NBCU's original prime-time programming by 20 percent next season and decrease ad time by 10 percent.

Unlike Fox, which plans to fill any time freed up by reducing commercials with longer-form branded content called "Fox blocks," NBC will extend the content of its shows.

NBCU's prime pods will be sold across the broadcast channel and cable networks like USA, Syfy and Bravo, including in "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which NBC picked up after it was canceled on Fox. Its "Chicago" franchise, which includes "Chicago Fire," "Chicago P.D." and "Chicago Med," was absent from a recent list of shows offering prime pods that was sent to buyers.

An NBCU spokeswoman declined to comment.

The biggest challenge will be pricing. While buyers agree that there is value for advertisers to appear in programming with fewer commercials, giving them a better chance to be seen and remembered, it's unclear how much of a premium that's worth.

NBCU is asking for $700,000 for a 30-second spot in "This Is Us" during the prime pod and $350,000 in "The Voice," according to one buyer. During last year's upfronts, "This is Us" cost advertisers close to $400,000 on average for a 30-second spot, while "The Voice" cost about $260,000, according to Ad Age's annual pricing survey.

The premium is anywhere from 40 percent to 70 percent higher depending on the advertiser's base rate, according to buyers. (Advertisers negotiate pricing for time in an upcoming TV season by starting with what they paid in the prior season, otherwise known as their base rate.) Both Fox and NBCU will be selling their limited commercials on a unit basis rather than off pre-existing rates.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Fox is looking to sell next season of MacFarlane's sci-fi dramedy "The Orville" with limited commecials. Fox is exploring that possibility.

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