Sneak peeks: Some of the most convincing ads for TV shows are the "scenes from next week" that typically appear in the last minutes of the program in question. Now ABC has decided to turn those promotions into advertising for someone else.
Viewers of the Disney network's "Grey's Anatomy" in the last two weeks might have seen a "sneak preview" of the following week's episode popping up in the middle of the show, alongside a message that the whole view was sponsored by Microsoft.
These weren't your run-of-the-mill sneak peeks -- not that stuff at the end of episodes of "Mad Men" that divulge absolutely nothing about what might take place and not the usual hype that places undue attention on a provocative scene, only to let hapless viewers discover the following week that the sizzle is greater than any substance behind it. No, these "Grey's Anatomy" previews showed actual plot developments -- in one instance, the Microsoft preview showed two characters in a romantic clinch -- actual news that could send complaining viewers to Twitter and other digital loudspeakers. It was almost a sponsored spoiler.
ABC and Microsoft declined to make executives available for comment, but the idea of trying to monetize the "coming attractions," for lack of a better term, sounds like an interesting one. In recent years, other advertisers have tried similar shenanigans: American Express for a year or so tested the idea of running promos in the final moments of "Lost," asking viewers to check out scenes from the show online, and sandwiching that message between a regular commercial and a "bumper," or brief call to attention typically used as a means to get viewers to stick around as the show dissolves into an ad break. One chief marketing officer has long expressed the opinion to me that those final moments -- when a show ends and rabid fans wait to see what's on tap for next week -- could be some of the most intensely viewed video time on TV today.
Microsoft has tested this tactic previously. The software giant has run brief ads on ABC and other networks that help "explain" characters' complicated histories by showing some of their key moments from the shows the company chooses to support. What drives such techniques? Most likely, the effort to keep people from fast-forwarding past commercials with a DVR. Since viewers tune in to watch specific shows, using elements from those shows should keep them more interested than, say, a cereal commercial set in a supermarket or a bunch of flashing logos.
Interestingly, ABC's move didn't keep the network from running traditional "scenes from next week" at the end of each "Grey's" episode. They just ran them again -- sometimes with the same stuff contained in the Microsoft ad. (Trust us, it feels less spoiler-y when you see it at the end of an episode than in the middle.) The tactic raises an interesting question: Why run this stuff for free when you can get someone to pay you instead?