Upfront 07

Fox the First to Bring Content Into Commercial Pods

As Minute-by-Minute Ratings Near, Net Tries to Keep Viewers Engaged

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Viewers who tuned in to keep up with Jack Bauer on last night's "24" found themselves introduced to another character during the commercial breaks. Oleg the cab driver made his Fox debut in a series of animated eight-second interstitials staggered across the hour-long program, making Fox the first of the five major broadcast nets to experiment with original content in their commercial pods.
Oleg the cab driver made his Fox debut in a series of animated eight-second interstitials staggered across last night's broadcast of '24.'
Oleg the cab driver made his Fox debut in a series of animated eight-second interstitials staggered across last night's broadcast of '24.'

A recognized need
But Oleg wasn't attached to any advertiser or an extension of the latest "24" plot point. Instead, he was the product of New York "innovation company" Ideocracy, headed by Ted D'Cruz-Young, a veteran creative for Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO. Mr. D'Cruz-Young said the idea for the character came out of the recognized need on both the networks and agencies for alternative forms of engagement, given the impending arrival of Nielsen's minute-by-mintue commercial ratings.

"Our objective is simple -- we want to change the form and function of the commercial break," Mr. D'Cruz-Young said. "No network would ever sign a deal with an ad agency to create content for commercial breaks -- it's church and state stuff. I think what we have achieved is truly unique -- creating media properties for the commercial break, characters and narrative that can grow and be much more than eight seconds but that play a very specific role initially."

Mr. D'Cruz-Young said Fox would apply a metric similar to Nielsen's commercial ratings to measure the engagement with the spots, which will continue to air through the end of the week. Not that he's concerned with the results at this point. "Honestly, I'm less concerned about numbers and applications this week than just sensing the appetite to really do different things now."

Some media buyers, for their part, are intrigued by the experiment, if slightly confused.

'Wasn't traditional'
"I definitely noticed there was something that wasn't traditional in terms of the commercial pod," said Peter Knobloch, president of R.J. Palmer, who tuned in to see the spots last night. "This changes the way you react [to commercials]. All suppliers are trying to figure out a way to make sure they create as much value to the commercial break. It's a measurement system, and now you're literally going to measure that interruption in the program."

John Moore, senior VP at Mullen's Media Hub in Boston, said he applauds the networks for reacting so quickly to the challenges of commercial engagement. "It's almost an antithesis to the business we live in. Look at how long it took for more networks to spend real money in online," he said.

Mr. Moore expects we'll see a lot more experimentation both on the broadcast and cable side in the weeks and months leading into and out of this year's upfront -- CW, MTV and VH1 are examples of other networks that have already unveiled their own engagement strategies. But if the networks are being held accountable for commercial engagement, Mr. D'Cruz-Young isn't ready to point the finger just yet.

'Lots of people we can blame'
"There's a vast entertainment chasm between program content and advertising content and there's lots of people we can blame for that," he said. "Maybe advertisers have been measuring the wrong things -- like how many times a brand is mentioned to determine whether their advertising content is good. Maybe networks have let them get away with good advertising that isn't good content. Maybe the agencies haven't done enough.

"Senior marketers, big advertisers are saying to us, 'Let's work something out.' It may be the answer to what the next iteration of the 30-second spot looks like."
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