'Chris Isaak Hour' Makes Debut With New Ad Format

Like Fox's 'Fringe,' A&E Series Will Air With Limited Commercials in Exchange for Higher Rates

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Another TV network is trying to get advertisers to pay more money for shows that have fewer commercials. After News Corp.'s Fox launched sci-fi drama "Fringe" this past fall with fewer TV ads behind it, A&E Networks' Bio Channel will test a similar concept with a new variety show featuring Chris Isaak that launches tonight.

'The Chris Issak Hour'
'The Chris Issak Hour'
"The Chris Isaak Hour" will contain only eight minutes of national advertising, down from 11 in a normal one-hour program, said Peter Olsen, senior VP-ad sales, A&E Networks. Two of the show's four commercial breaks will be limited to one 60-second advertisement. The format will not be used during repeats of the program.

Silencing the white noise
Marketers have been clamoring for networks to come up with ways to make their ads stand out more on TV, where a dizzying barrage of promotional messages creates almost a sort of white noise for anyone watching. The question is whether networks can make up for a potential loss of ad revenue by getting advertisers to pony up for the opportunity to stand out in a less crowded field.

"Is the engagement and retention boost worth it from the client perspective to pay more for less?" Mr. Olsen asked.

Pfizer and Procter & Gamble Co. are among the marketers taking part in A&E's experiment, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The companies did not return calls seeking comment.

Both media outlets and marketers have a more pressing need to reduce the number of commercial messages surrounding a TV show: the longer a commercial break, the more chance viewers will tune away. These days, advertising on TV is judged based on how many people watched commercials, a tougher task thanks to increased penetration of ad-skipping digital video recorders.

Advertisers greeted a similar venture from Fox with open arms -- and open wallets. So eager were marketers to test out this new method that they were willing to pay a premium of 40% to run ads during "Fringe," according to media buyers. Fox is also trying this method with another new program, "Dollhouse," which is produced by Joss Whedon, famous for the WB and UPN drama "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

The idea runs counter to how most TV is sold. Over the years, the amount of airtime devoted by broadcast networks to either commercials or promotions for network shows has risen as high as 15 minutes per hour, and to 16 minutes or more at some cable networks, according to 2007 report from Mindshare, a WPP media-buying concern. But Fox decided to run "Fringe," an hourlong drama from J.J. Abrams, the force behind megahit "Lost" on Walt Disney's ABC, with roughly half the standard amount of ads and network promos.

It's even more unusual for a cable network such as A&E, given that the majority of ad time bought on cable is by daypart and demographics, rather than individual shows. Over the past few years, that's changed as more cable networks invest in original programming and sell directly against broadcast prime time.

It's not entirely clear the model is a sustainable one. Ad skipping during "Fringe" has been "better" than other shows, Jon Nesvig, president-sales, Fox Broadcasting Co., recently told the New York Times, "but it hasn't been as great as we were hoping." Mr. Nesvig also said that "the jury is still out on the economics." A Fox spokeswoman was not able to offer immediate response to an email seeking comment for this story.

But will you keep paying?
Indeed, the current economy could make the method difficult to extend, suggested one media buyer. "You want your spots in that kind of environment, without the clutter and everything, but wanting it and paying for it are two different things," said Ira Berger, director-network broadcasting at Richards Group.

At Bio, there's hope the "Chris Isaak" format could lead to bigger things. "We'll try to analyze long breaks vs. short breaks, reduced loads vs. normal loads, and see if we see spikes," said Mr. Olsen, who suggested such a format could help a cable network such as Bio stand apart from tens of rival options on the set-top box. "The feeling is, from this test, it's something that potentially could move to the entire Bio format over time."

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