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On-Air Promotion Is Full of Challenges – Shorter Breaks Just A Band-Aid.

Driving ratings for those in television on-air promotion has never been more challenging.  The primary goals for on-air marketers are, have always been, and will always been  to promote your brand, promote your shows and of course drive ratings.  With viewership as fragmented as it is in this on-demand world, time-shifting and non-linear viewership of traditional linear programs have created a conundrum for marketers, as their own audiences aren’t always in a place where they can be reached effectively. The most effective plans have always had a balance of science and art.  The science being the data, the art being a combination of the creative execution and the flow in which the spots are scheduled.  Most solutions to the growing challenges have become Band-Aids.

It’s nothing new to learn the world of linear television has changed more in the last 3-5 years than in the 60 years prior combined.  We went from 3 or 4 national networks in the 50’s and 60’s to 30 or 40 in the 70’s and 80’s to 100’s in the 90’s and early 2000s.   The change was always more, more more.  But since the mid-2000’s it went from more, more, more, to when, where, and how.

The traditional networks have tried to keep up and even thrive with the changes. Unfortunately, there is no blueprint for how to react. Over the past 2 decades, they’ve tried really hard!  They’ve created and enhanced their websites, they’ve created and enhanced their apps.  They’ve embraced VOD, embraced DAI, they’ve become enamored with big data and some have even embraced the “Moneyball” philosophy.  With consolidation, many now are owned by companies that have acquired many of the services and technologies that the networks have been afraid of. As a result, many having embraced the “if you can’t beat em, join em” mantra.

So, with the continued decline in linear ratings, coupled with the prevalence of time shifting, on-air promotion strategy, and commercial effectiveness is in crisis. What do the networks do?  Well, there are so many smart people delving into data to capitalize on ways to overcome these issues,  and yet, with few exceptions, networks go back to the “same old, same old”

Clusterbusters, Pod busters, Co-branded spots, Longer segments and fewer breaks, shorter segments and more breaks, start one minute after the hour, start one minute before the hour, go off the clock, pre-linear premieres, catch up marathons, no commercials, limited commercials. The list goes on and on….

Not one of these techniques is a proven long-term solution.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.  Ultimately, they work when the show is good and fail when the show stinks.

The problem is a never-ending cycle:

  1. Ratings are down.
  2. We need to find creative ways to drive awareness to our shows.
  3. We’re carrying too much ADU – (Make Goods on under-delivery of ratings)
  4. Ad sales needs to take time back from the promotions team.
  5. Promotion teams says “with no promo time, we can’t promote shows, ratings will continue to fall”.
  6. Sales says “if ratings continue to fall and ADU accumulates, we won’t make quarfdterly numbers and nobody gets a bonus”.
  7. Promotions team says “ok”.
  8. Go back to 1

So, while for years, solutions of giving back promo time, shortening shows and going off the clock helped reach quarterly goals, it has ultimately left us where we are today.  Short shows, lots of breaks and ratings continue to fall.

So now word is out that NBC and FOX are looking to do something “drastic”.  According to Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising and client partnerships, the stable of NBC networks will cut the number of ads in primetime pods by 20% and the amount of ad time in those shows by 10%.  (Variety)

Meanwhile, FOX is also discussing cutting back on ads, stating a 2020 goal of cutting down prime time advertising from 13 minutes per hour to 11 minutes.  The plan is called “Jazz,” according to Bruce Lefkowitz, executive VP of advertising at Fox Networks Group, who spoke with Television News Daily. Lefkowitz says this refers to “Just ‘a’ and ‘z’ ” (first and last) placements of commercials in a pod, which typically get higher viewership. – (Mediapost )

Having been an on-air strategist and having led groups of on-air promo planners for many years, I applaud this.  It’s about time.  But sadly, it’s most likely way too little way too late.  Shortening breaks is akin to putting a band-aid on a compound fracture.  Had this been done BEFORE viewers could watch what they want when they want with NO Breaks (see Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc.), I’d be a little more optimistic.  From an ad sales perspective, analytics may suggest more engagement, retention etc., but from a consumer perspective, are they going to feel it?  Does a commercial break that lasts 3:15  instead of break that lasts 4:00 really feel different to the average viewers?  I’m skeptical.

The science tells us that smaller advertising loads will help on-air promotions. The shorter the break the greater the retention. From that perspective, it will work. The art tells us that less clutter makes for a better viewing experience.   What we don’t know yet is, how much impact a “little” less clutter and a “little” more retention will have.