In Depth

Web Ad Action Surprises Nets

Inventory Opens as Guarantees Reached

Advertising time in full episodes streamed online was a hot property during the upfront, ad buyers said, but some networks appear to have underestimated how many people log on to watch them. And once the networks streamed the number of spots they promised advertisers, they switched to promos and tried to find new online advertisers.

While a tight advertising market means it’s next to impossible to buy ads in “Desperate Housewives” or “Heroes” on TV, spots in episodes of those shows are available online.

A quick check of network Web sites found that during an episode of the new sitcom “Samantha Who?” on ABC.com, the commercial pods were filled with promos for other ABC shows. On NBC.com, network promos appeared during episodes of “Life” and “30 Rock.”

A source close to the situation said ABChad reached its online guarantees and was in the process of a new round of sales.

And NBCsaid in a statement, “We beat our estimates and are continuing to monetize the incremental inventory for the rest of the quarter.”

On CBS’ innertube online video player, an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” contained commercials for Ziplock and Viagra. During a playback of “’Til Death” on Fox.com, the same AT&T ad was served four times.

Buyers were surprised the networks had new online ad inventory available.

“They have proven to us that it’s a hit and it works and recall is there,” said Tracey Scheppach, senior VP and video innovations director at Starcom. “It’s a good place for advertising.”

As the TV market has tightened, on-demand prices have been rising as well.

While network gets about $25 per thousand viewers delivered, it’s more than $30 per thousand users reached over broadband. And full episodes of network shows are considered “a premium viewing environment.”

Ms. Scheppach said because episode streaming is still fairly new, it’s difficult for the networks to predict how many viewers will view shows online.

And unlike traditional TV, where the advertisers gets the extra exposure for free if more viewers than expected watch a program, online, the network can stop serving the ad once it reaches the number of impressions guaranteed.

“They can cut you off,” Ms. Scheppach said.

The networks have not released the number of episodes they’ve streamed this season. Nielsen Online does not track the number of episodes streamed, but shows ABC as having 10.6 million unique visitors on its Web site for the month of October. NBC drew 8.1 million, CBS 6.1 million and Fox 3.4 million. NBC and Fox are working together to put content, including full program episodes, on a new joint venture site, Hulu.com. CBS is syndicating its content to a number of Web sites that form an online network for advertisers.

The amount of streaming appears to be on the increase.

“The numbers grow every day,” said one media buyer.

The buyer said that ABC, which was first to offer full episodes online, should have a pretty good idea of how much inventory was available. NBC made a relatively conservative estimate of online viewing, and it has been pleasantly surprised.

The current writers strike, which has already disrupted late night and has begun to knock original shows out of prime time, is being fought partly over who gets paid when programming is watched online.

Ironically, ad buyers and their clients are looking at online as a place to find viewers who may decide to watch less television.

“We’re looking and we’re having those conversations internally,” the ad buyer said. But the key is whether prices online climb as fast as they are rising in the fourth-quarter scatter market.

Some advertisers haven’t fully bought into streaming yet. For others, it remains a bureaucratic hassle to redirect money designated for TV to the Internet.

“This is a big opportunity for the networks to get a lot of money into the space,” the ad buyer said. “If they start jacking the dollars up and get greedy, it could backfire.”

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