TV Upfront

History reduces ad loads, but promises it won't raise prices

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Astrid (Josefin Asplund) and King Harald Finehair (Peter Franzén) from History's 'Vikings,' one of the shows slated for reduced commercial time this year.
Astrid (Josefin Asplund) and King Harald Finehair (Peter Franzén) from History's 'Vikings,' one of the shows slated for reduced commercial time this year. Credit: Jonathan Hession/A&E Television Networks

A&E Networks is the latest TV programmer to say it will pare down commercial time, but unlike its rivals, it is promising advertisers that prices won't meaningfully rise in the process.

History will remove betwen two and two-and-a-half minutes of commercials from its premium scripted dramas and event documentaries starting in the fourth quarter of the year, says Peter Olsen, executive VP of ad sales at A&E Networks.

The first half-hour of these programs will air with just one commercial break that will be sponsored by a single advertiser. That means the first "act" of the show will run with limited commercial interruption.

The new commercial format will run in upcoming "History 100" documentaries, the miniseries "The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen" and scripted dramas "Vikings," "Blue Book" and "Six." Non-scripted programming like "Pawn Stars" and other content will run with traditional commercial breaks.

For a one-hour show like "Vikings," the ad load will decrease by 18 percent, and in a two-hour show like "Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen," commercials will shrink by 10 percent.

This is the latest effort by TV networks to clean up commercial clutter, which has ballooned over the last decade. Fox Networks Group and NBC Universal, among others, also have plans to reduce commercial time in their broadcast and cable channels next season. It's a necessary move to compete with Netflix and other streaming providers that have limited or no commercials.

But the biggest issue with these efforts have been making the math work. To keep ad revenue at least flat while reducing commercials, networks need to raise prices. And while advertisers agree that there's certainly a benefit to fewer commercials, their willingness to pay a premium is limited.

But History is "not seeking an additional premium with this inventory," Olsey says.

That's because the addition of "History 100," a slate of 100 documentaries about events over the past 100 years, will help fill slots that are typically occupied by reruns or reality programming, which command lower prices to start.

Olsen says History has committed to more premium programming that commands a higher price point, so the network can afford not to further raise prices on the limited commercial experience.

"We can reduce all this time throughout the year, not lose money, offer a better experience and don't have to charge massive premiums to make ourselves whole," he says.

History will not add the commercial time back somewhere else, either at the end of the the program or another night of the week.

"The goal is to create more content for the viewer," Olsen says.

The plan will afford one advertiser the ability to own the first half-hour of a program. A&E will work with marketers to decide how they will use the time, with options ranging from a piece of custom content to a single, traditional spot. The advertiser will be mentioned on screen and there will be a form of acknowledgement that the first portion of the show is being brought to viewers with limited commercials by the advertiser.

The rest of the program will run with regular commercial breaks.

A&E will look to implement a similar format on its Biography channel.

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