In Depth

Promos Do Double Duty As Networks Fight DVR Dips

By Andrew Hampp, Advertising Age

They're the most ubiquitous ads on TV, and they're more important to a network than any $100 million upfront buy. They're on-air promos, and they're here to stay -- even if you're fed up with being reminded 15 times in one hour to tune in to a show you'll never watch or endure another forced tie-in between a superhero action movie and an NBA playoff game. 

"It used to be promos were considered free advertising for TV networks since nobody paid for them," said Lee Hunt, a brand strategist who helped launch networks such as Lifetime, TNT and VH1. Now they double as everything from co-sponsored vignettes for advertisers (called hybrid ads by Nielsen IAG) to customized stunts for movie studios to long-form commercial programming, all in the name of boosting audience retention and keeping advertisers happy.

Historically, an on-air promo has often been the first ad viewers see during a commercial break to persuade them to stick around, and also entice them to check out upcoming shows on the network. A promo usually airs once more at the end of the break to let the viewer know the show is returning. But promos have become more than just house ads in recent years, particularly since the TV industry converted its measurement in 2007 from Nielsen's program ratings to C3 commercial ratings, which measure average audience retention during commercial breaks for live viewing plus three days of time-shifted viewing on DVRs.

The promo's evolved role in the commercial mix will be a frequent topic of discussion at the Promax/BDA marketing and design conference, which recognizes the best TV promos across all media and kicks off June 16 in New York. In a keynote, Mr. Hunt will present new research from TiVo's StopWatch service that reveals that promos retain an average of 9% more viewers during ad breaks than regular commercials.

Mike Benson, ABC's exec VP-marketing, advertising and promotion, will serve his fifth and final year as the conference's chair, and told Ad Age the promo's integrity is challenged more than ever in a post-C3 environment.

"We want to do [hybrid ads] in a way that is ultimately going to have value for both the advertiser and the network," he said. "I'm not a fan of sweepstakes and contests -- I don't feel like they fit our brand, and the return on them is really low, so we choose for the most part not to do them."

Instead, ABC is pairing its shows with contextual marketing partners such as Touchstone's Sandra Bullock comedy "The Proposal." Footage from the movie will be paired with live wedding-proposal promos for "The Bachelorette" next week.

While ABC's C3 retention has remained largely unaffected by DVR penetration, hovering around the 92% range since 2007, the metric has become much more crucial for cable networks, which would use the promos as space fillers for unsold ad time. Now promos' airtime is subject to how well a network does in the ratings, which is why the percentage of commercial time given to promos has gone down significantly, to 20%, at high-rated networks such as Turner's TNT, the subject of a heated debate during Ad Age's recent upfront roundtable. The worst-case scenario, Mr. Hunt said, is when a network that fares poorly in C3 ditches promos to sell more ads and the C3 ratings sink as a result of viewers changing the channel. That's why networks will sell their promos to advertisers whenever possible to keep commercial engagement up and still turn a profit.

It's only when networks drop promos altogether in an effort to sell more ads that they suffer, Mr. Hunt said. "For most promo people, the idea of sharing the time [with advertisers] is a lot better than losing that time completely." One executive at a production studio that specializes in on-air-promo production told Ad Age its projects have shifted from 40% co-branded promos in 2007 to 80% in 2009, a sign that networks are "giving away the store" at the expense of promos' effectiveness.

"It seems to be more about ad-sales deals than what the person at the other end of the TV pipe wants to watch," the executive said.

The new economics of TV has forced networks to go to comical stretches to make promos work for sponsors. Mr. Hunt cited examples such as Discovery Channel, which recruited Red Lobster to sponsor a show about exploring aquatic life ("Let's see all these wonderful creatures and then kill them and eat them," he joked) and Spike's attempt to tie sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to wrestling.

Stephanie Gibbons, exec VP-marketing and on-air promotions at FX, said programming commercial breaks has become as critical as designing prime-time schedules. "We're working aggressively with advertisers to try to provide for them more innovative opportunities to blend our promos with their products and their commercial time with our content," she said. "[The promo] has remained as critical as ever; if anything now it's asked to do double duty."