Commercials. Be it skip or flick, it's the key moment when audiences disengage. Yet that same moment is at odds with a programmer's remit -- keeping audiences engaged. So why aren't those tasked with hooking audiences in taking control to stop the skip?
These are the people that create, craft and commission the countless TV shows that hook each and every one of us in. So what if the networks expanded the remit of their programming specialists to achieve the same engagement across the ad breaks? As the primary revenue stream for networks, shouldn't it be the primary point in the schedule that programmers are actively involved in, too?
My last column, "Podcast Pioneers," demonstrated how podcasters have cracked the commercial model, creating advertising that audiences choose to engage with. Though audio is a vastly simpler medium to shift, requiring less time, resources and cost to evolve, the immediate need for TV networks to rethink the model is reflected in the ratings' downward trend. NBC, for instance, woke up to the reality by providing leap day viewers with additional content in place of ads, sponsored by American Express. While this is a welcome exception, providing it more than once in four years and integrating it deeper than a "brought to you by" must become the norm.
As audiences disperse and traditional broadcast reach declines, content juggernauts like YouTube are soaring. CEO Susan Wojcicki just announced that it reaches "more 18- to 49-year-olds [in the U.S.] during prime time than the top 10 TV shows combined." It's also rumored to be launching online TV service "Unplugged" in 2017, grabbing more viewing time and revenue. Apple and Amazon are reportedly not far behind. Even TV's last standing reality and sports battlegrounds are under attack, as Netflix launches its first reality format "Ultimate Beastmaster" and Twitter begins streaming the NFL.
Persisting to interrupt audiences with a commercial model built for a time when choice was limited is no longer an option. As interruption-free services grow and the skip button is easier than ever to push, what's it going to take for the TV industry to redesign its advertising strategy? Thankfully, some networks have recognized and reacted to the need.
NBC's longstanding sketch comedy show "Saturday Night Live" has announced a 30% reduction in commercials. Beyond the show, the network is offering fewer reasons for viewers to switch and advertisers more reason to pay a premium. Across the season, the SNL producers and cast will create original branded content, entertaining audiences in similar ways to the show, while weaving brand messaging throughout.
Vice is another leader in this space, following the March launch of Viceland, the fastest-growing TV network in the medium's history. They've exploited the freedom of launching a new channel to collaborate with advertisers and agencies in much the same way as their integrated digital offering.
From entertainment to utility, when it comes to rethinking ad break structures that enable premium brand-led content, this is just the start. For instance, a brand could use the intellectual property and talent of a well-known drama to create a sub-series told over multiple break buyouts. Brands could produce a unique game show format or even create entire evening lineups with hosted wraparound programming. Provided its content is something audiences choose to engage with and aligns to the program's values and tone, it will curb viewers' desires to skip.
With digital ad sales expected to overtake TV this year, what's holding traditional programmers back? Focus. From the top down, networks need to give programmers the remit and scope to flex their expertise, looking beyond the programs themselves and across the content that continuously interrupts them. While that may result in shifting the elusive first in-break promo and ditching the 30-second stopwatch, the opportunity and necessity is real.
As audiences increasingly opt for interruption-free experiences enabled by subscription-based streaming services and ad blockers, it's imperative that networks pave the way, combining programmers with agencies and brands to challenge the skippable culture and engage audiences in new ways. One that keeps audiences watching, brands paying a premium and networks increasing their yield. The question is, how much longer can networks afford to avoid it?