George and Laura Like Their Car, and 'Bionic Woman'

NBC, Honda Team for Fall TV Promotion

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NEW YORK ( -- When it comes to selling stuff, TV networks and their advertisers usually keep things in separate baskets. Marketers hawk their wares with TV commercials and networks reserve their own time for promos that run adjacent to their own programs. But NBC and American Honda Motor Co. are smushing the two together.

Since Sept. 10, the two have run a promotion once a night that tries to draw attention to both Honda's new Accord and NBC's new fall programs. The concept, included in Honda's upfront buy with NBC Universal, comes as part of an NBC push to find new methods to draw viewers through ad breaks and "enhance your awareness of the commercials," said Barbara Blangiardi, NBC Universal's senior VP-strategic marketing and content innovation.

Vignettes, not spots
During selected programs, NBC is telling viewers to stay tuned for previews of its various new fall shows. Instead of going to a traditional commercial, however, NBC is running vignettes showing "George" and "Laura," two happy-go-lucky characters driving along in a Honda Accord, talking about programs including "Bionic Woman," "Chuck" and "Journeyman." A few ads later, the two return with more chatter before NBC runs a preview of the new program, making clear that Honda is sponsoring all the activity.

With the new fall season set to get under way, the big broadcast networks are ramping up their promotional efforts, using unique radio ads, billboards and guerilla-marketing stunts to get TV fans to tune in to their particular programs. Running promos on their own airwaves has long stood as the best way to spark mass awareness of the new viewing options, say network executives.

But as summer turns to fall, viewers have been watching promos for new shows for months, said Lisa Herdman, VP-associate director, network buying at RPA, the Santa Monica, Calif., agency that works for Honda. "They've been running promos all summer long. There is a certain wear-out point the closer they get [to launch], and, quite honestly, the closer they get the more important it is for them" to get the message out about new programs, she said. A hybrid approach can draw a jaded viewer's attention, she added.

Commercial ratings
Networks have other reasons for testing new formats. Many ad deals for the coming fall season are based on commercial ratings, meaning NBC and others need to ensure certain audience levels for the ads that support their programs.

So many broadcast networks are experimenting with ways to get viewers to stick around for the ads, rather than rush to grab a snack, use the bathroom or worse -- use a DVR to fast forward past ads altogether. "The whole concept of pod innovation is the hot button in the industry," said NBC's Ms. Blangiardi. "Does it help us hold an audience for live viewing, and also, does it minimize fast-forwarding on time-shifted viewing?"

Honda is looking to try new ad ideas, said Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising, American Honda Motor Co. This new hybrid promotion shows networks more eager to bend their old rules than has previously been the case, he said.

"In the last year, with the advent of commercial ratings, there are several different commercial formats out there," Mr. Peyton said. "I think they have really gotten with the program and are willing to try some different things."

Cadillac gets a deal, too
CBS, meanwhile, has struck its own a deal with an automaker, Cadillac, to promote its Monday night lineup of shows by building a special section on its website dubbed "the Cadillac of premieres." Cadillac is also the sponsor of the network's new season-premiere show, a sneak-peek at the fall lineup that airs Sept. 14, and was given a brand integration opportunity within "CSI: Miami."

While the advent of commercial ratings has spurred some of this activity, cable networks are also rapidly offering new ideas, including techniques that blur programming with advertising.

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