Tuning In: AT&T Connects to Conan; Tonight's '30 Rock' Live

Brian Steinberg on the TV Season and the Future of TV

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"Blimp moments" as AT&T dials up Conan: The typical advertising routine calls for marketers to run their spots during the flashiest shows they can find. But AT&T is doing something a little different -- sponsoring the promotions for a program that has yet to air a single episode.

AT&T has taken the unusual step of sponsoring the pre-launch hype for TBS' new late-night "Conan" show, featuring, unsurprisingly, Conan O' Brien. Viewers of the Time Warner Cable outlet's broadcasts of post-season Major League Baseball have likely heard announcers call attention to a "Conan" blimp hovering above some of the games. A spokeswoman for TBS' parent, Turner Broadcasting, said those Conan "blimp moments" -- yes, that's right -- were indeed sponsored by AT&T, which is also sponsoring the premiere week of Mr. O' Brien's new show.

The Conan promos are slated to run through October, said a spokeswoman for AT&T, and also involve skits featuring Mr. O' Brien and a blimp pilot; all skits are "brought to you by AT&T." All aerial coverage of the TBS baseball games from the blimp was also AT&T-sponsored. There is, moreover, a "blimp page" on the web site for Mr. O' Brien's show, TeamCoco.com, that is "presented by AT&T" and features clips of the blimp skits, a "blimp tracker," "blimp tweets" and a "blimp cam."

The Turner spokeswoman declined to comment on additional sponsors for the much-anticipated new "Conan" show, which features the lanky, red-headed late-night host in his first TV venture since losing his perch at NBC's "Tonight."

Advertisers are likely to give the program a high degree of scrutiny. Turner boldly demanded, and seems to have gotten, prices that were close to those of NBC's Jay Leno-hosted "Tonight" show and CBS's "Late Show" with David Letterman. Whether Mr. O' Brien can secure cable audiences comparable to those broadcasts shows remains to be seen.

How to watch "30 Rock" tonight: NBC is broadcasting a live episode of "30 Rock" tonight in a bid to generate a little more excitement among fans of the actors, several of whom have improv in their backgrounds and who sparked buzz when they performed a live version of the show during the 2007-2008 writers strike.

Advertisers may want to watch for other elements. Working live means doing a job without the luxury of having additional takes, and who knows what kinds of technical challenges stand behind the scenes. But "30 Rock" is also known for weaving advertisers' products into its scripts, and what marketer wouldn't pay a little extra to get something clever into a live show? An NBC spokeswoman said the network expects a typical load of commercials for the show, and typical ad breaks, but we've seen the way Tina Fey and cohorts have managed to hawk Verizon Wireless, Soy Joy and Snapple in the show itself and also create ads for Dr Pepper that featured Chris Parnell in his "30 Rock" role of Dr. Spacemen. We'll keep our eyes open.


VOD vs. DVR: The New York Post today gets all revved up about TV networks finding a way to prevent ad skipping. They are making their shows available via video on demand, but with the ability to fast-forward disabled. Trust us, this doesn't solve the problem at all, even though the networks have seen some success with it in the past. (Here's Ad Age's report on ABC broadening the technique out in 2008.)

At some point, the whole TV world may be VOD. Until that time, however, between 30% and 40% of U.S. homes have a DVR, and ad skipping has becoming part of the TV-watching culture. It's not going to be forgotten just because some cable system makes it impossible to do in certain cases. And many people will prefer to record shows on their DVRs specifically so they can fast-forward through the commercials.

Another pet theory: Shows that get recorded are more likely to get watched than programs that viewers figure they'll pull up sometime using on-demand services. When people make the choice to record something on a DVR, they're investing some of their personal time in it. This is something they mean to watch. Not every recorded show gets viewed, but there's an intent and the resulting reminder of its presence in the list of recorded shows. When a show is available all the time, any time on video-on-demand, on the other hand, there's even less urgency to sit down and watch it.

The same old fight: Cablevision and News Corp. are seemingly locked in a battle over retransmission fees that could take News Corp.'s New York stations off of Cablevision's system, reports the New York Times.

Again with this stuff?

We've seen pitched negotiations between any number of media companies this year over the same thing: getting more subscriber fees for broadcast programming. And we've seen endless commercials from each side encouraging viewers to call the other party and apply a little consumer pressure.

Yes, some of these skirmishes result in popular programs being taken off the air, but more often than not, the battle gets resolved in the nick of time, rendering hundreds of thousands of dollars in snarky, name-calling advertising moot. Attention, media companies: Your customers don't care about retrans fees, how much they amount to and who ought to pay them. They just want to see the shows to which they've already devoted the dollars in their wallet. Stop the public backbiting and hash out a solution.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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