In Depth

Turner Experiments With Building a Smarter Ad for Its Cable Networks--Invests in Tech to Allow Spots Thematically Tied to Shows on TBS, TNT, TruTV

Time Warner's cable outlets are trying to stitch together the gaps between TV shows and the commercials that support them. In a four-year effort, executives at the company's Turner cable unit have ramped up the ability to offer advertisers on TBS, TNT and Tru something they desperately want: the chance to make their commercials more indistinguishable from the programs they usually interrupt.

Turner is "tagging" specific moments in movies and series, trying to find dialogue, action or themes that echo a message an advertiser might like to promote, and then creating related ad vignettes that'll appear in the spaces between when a program segment ends and a commercial break begins.

For example, Turner could craft ad creative that shows a hardened criminal in handcuffs talking about candy in a segment that buffers "The Closer," whose heroine loves to eat chocolate and other sweets. It could create an ad that shows men hitting golf balls at a range, which would run in "Men of a Certain Age," where the central character is trying to get on the golf circuit. Or it could create a funny, reality-based spot about advertisers' corporate history to appear just before ad breaks on the reality-themed Tru network. (It has, in fact, done so for Buffalo Wild Wings.)

And in a particularly aggressive maneuver, Turner is finding old product placements that were designed by and generated ad revenue for other networks, and then calling up marketers to see if they'd like to appear next to them. For instance, it could approach Chili's to buy an ad next to its appearances in episodes of "The Office," which originally appeared on NBC and now run in syndication on Turner's TBS.

The network has spent 18 months building new software and hiring staff to tag the specific segments on movies and TV shows running on its cable outlets. A person familiar with the situation estimates Turner has invested a seven-figure sum in the effort.

Turner executives would not discuss the cost of the effort, but Linda Yaccarino, exec VP and chief operating officer of Turner Entertainment ad sales, marketing and acquisitions, said such moves are "absolutely critical to survival." A viewer "could be zooming through" with a DVR, she said, but if the advertising looks like the content the viewer tuned in to see in the first place, "they are trained to stop and watch it." Research commissioned by Turner using Ameritest, a commercial-testing firm, suggests that viewers are 25% more receptive to video promotions that play off the content they're watching than they are to traditional ads.

To offer tailored ads across its three general-entertainment networks, Turner started building up in 2007, said Ms. Yaccarino. She had been approached by a colleague, Jennifer Dorian, senior VP-strategy development for Turner Entertainment Networks and Turner Broadcasting's animation, young adults and kids' media, with a suggestion: Run funny ads on comedy-focused TBS. Talk then "progressed to the idea of priming your advertising," said Ms. Yaccarino.

Some of the content tie-ins aren't new: NBC has for several years allowed marketers the opportunity to tie ads into specific shows, as American Express did with "Heroes" by running a spot with Beyonce being formed out of comic-book sketches (the better to align the spot with the superhero-themed drama). The CW offers "content wraps," or long-form commercials that embrace the themes of the shows in which they appear. In 2006, when the network launched, Procter & Gamble's Herbal Essences shampoo sponsored a "show" called "CWH" centered on beauty and fashion tips that appeared during ad breaks in "America's Next Top Model." HGTV has let General Motors devise ads that looked much like its popular "House Hunters" series, while A&E Television Networks runs individualized pieces of content featuring Geico's "Caveman" characters.

Where Turner is trying to differentiate itself is in the amount it can offer marketers. Many customized ads are "one offs," created for a special occasion such as a season premiere or series finale. Giving marketers -- especially those who depend on TV to sell to millions of people -- the chance to air tailored ads more frequently is the sell.

"In a lot of cases when we look to make our clients' advertising stand out, we spend 75% of our time talking about 10% of the inventory that we are buying," said Kris Magel, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. Advertisers, he said, have grown more interested in tailoring a greater portion of their overall advertising to the content in which it appears, not just a few spots slated to air in TV shows expected to garner higher-than-usual ratings.