While the transition to commercial ratings is worrying many television executives, it’s building a business for Lee Hunt.
Mr. Hunt, a well-known promotions executive turned consultant, has been studying audience flow and retention for the past few years. He recorded network programming to see what they are doing in their commercial breaks to prevent viewers from channel-surfing at the ends of shows or the beginning of commercial pods.
Now that keeping viewers tuned in during those breaks will translate directly into advertising dollars, Mr. Hunt’s phone is ringing off the hook and senior executives, not just promo guys, are interested in what he knows. Breaks are where the business of advertising gets done, Mr. Hunt said.
“It’s everything from selling advertising to promoting shows to building brands, and in some ways it’s a no-man’s land where all these different areas that often don’t have strong relationships with one another — ad sales and marketing and programming — it’s the one juncture where they all have to meet and work together,” Mr. Hunt said.
The new ratings system — average rating for commercial minutes in live programming plus three days of digital video recorder playback, also known as C3 — means a profound change for television.
“Everything’s turned inside out and breaks are being rated. People are suddenly paying a lot more attention to break architecture,” Mr. Hunt said.
Networks have been fiddling with breaks since the 1990s, when NBC started squeezing the credits to promote the shows coming up. But in the last 90 days, Mr. Hunt said, he’s gotten inquiries from 15 to 20 networks. He is currently working with about half a dozen networks on how to reduce break erosion, because what happens when the show stops has become crucial. This work now accounts for about a third of his business, he estimates. One of Mr. Hunt’s clients is A&E Television Networks, whose CEO, Abbe Raven, called the switch to C3 a game changer.
“Companies that aren’t embracing it as the No. 1 challenge are going to be left behind,” Ms. Raven said.
In July, Ms. Raven hired Mr. Hunt to address her senior executives at an off-site retreat, and earlier this month she sent a video e-mail to staffers throughout the company addressing the issue.
The company’s networks A&E and History Channel have been experimenting with the configuration and length of its breaks and looking at the non-commercial content the network is airing.
“I don’t think we’ve hit upon nirvana here, and I don’t think anyone else has either,” Ms. Raven said.
Where Mr. Hunt has been particularly helpful is in finding ways to turn the situation into a strategic opportunity to be more flexible in working with advertisers and agencies, Ms. Raven said.
Mr. Hunt declined to name the rest of his clients, but he’s got other fans around the industry. As a board member of Promax/BDA, where he is interim managing director, he works with Promax/BDA Chairman Mike Benson, ABC Entertainment’s executive VP of marketing, advertising and promotion.
“One of the things I love about Lee is he’s got the ability to gather up everything that’s going on and create his own point of view that’s very smart,” Mr. Benson said.
Chris McCumber, senior VP of marketing and brand strategy of USA Network, used to work at Mr. Hunt’s promotion agency.
“He has been a mentor and one of the smartest people in the business,” Mr. McCumber said of Mr. Hunt.
Mr. Hunt has consulted with USA in the past on break structure, but hadn’t for the past year and a half, Mr. McCumber said.
USA has been attempting to retain viewers by putting content that looks like entertainment early in breaks to keep viewers tuning in. In some cases, that means promos, in others, movie trailers.
But USA also is working with advertisers on what it calls “Showcase Pods” that are just one minute long. (Viewers know the break is short because USA announces it before the break starts and sometimes runs a clock that will count down 60 seconds until the show returns.)
It’s also looking at ways to put the stars of its shows into special spots that open pods. Sonic had one of these “advertainment” spots featuring hosts of “Nashville Star,” and Alltel did one featuring “Psych” stars James Roday and Dule Hill in character talking about the mobile phone company.
“It acts as promotion for the show, but also it works for our clients,” Mr. McCumber said.
Those are the kinds of things Mr. Hunt finds on the DVRs he uses to monitor break activity.
Based on what he’s seen, he said Comcast’s networks have been among the boldest at trying new things.
One tactic Comcast-owned E! has been using is called “Be Right Back,” in which a graphic on the bottom of the screen will offer a trivia question just before a break starts. The answer, along with a new question, appears in the middle of the break. The answer to the final question appears as the show resumes. The network also has been running its news ticker through the beginning of breaks to keep viewers watching.
“What they have done is woven the viewer through the break,” Mr. Hunt said. “It’s a little bit of a watch-and-win sort of thing.”
David Cassaro, president of Comcast Network Advertising, said those techniques, plus using more frequent and shorter breaks, plus putting more advertisers into the first position in pods, have improved audience retention.
“We’re seeing it creep up every month a little at a time,” he said.
Mr. Hunt said National Geographic tried running a countdown clock toward the ends of breaks to let viewers know the show is about to return.
Rich Goldfarb, senior VP of sales at National Geographic, said the tactic produced little change in the ratings, so it’s no longer being used.
Mr. Hunt also pointed to the way TNT aired a NASCAR race without interruption. The network produced special spots that tied into the race for its sponsors, and those spots ran in one-third of the screen while the race telecast continued.
“It was a seamless flow of content, but you were still getting the commercial message and the commercial message was relevant to that particular event,” Mr. Hunt said.
Mr. Hunt puts together reels of these findings and makes them available to Promax/BDA members.
With so little known and so much riding on it, this might be the perfect time to be a consultant.
“One client told me the other day, it’s the Wild West out here and everybody’s trying different things,” Mr. Hunt said.
How to Keep Viewers
- Lee Hunt’s No. 1 rule for retaining viewers during a program: “Anything that’s not content tends to drive them away.”
In one extreme case, ABC learned that when it squeezed the credits at the end of “Lost,” if the network ran a trailer for the next episode of “Lost,” fewer viewers left than if it ran a promo for the show that was on next.
- Promos at the beginning of breaks also can help keep viewers tuned in. As Mr. Hunt put it, those viewers came to A&E to watch an A&E show.
“If you put an A&E spot in the first position, I’m more likely to pay attention to that because I didn’t come to A&E to buy a Ford truck, so when that message comes on, I’m more likely to surf,” Mr. Hunt said.
How to Lose Viewers
- Mr. Hunt said the worst thing you can do is run a commercial message that is completely irrelevant to that target audience.
“If you were running a show on Spike or ESPN that was strongly male, and then you end up scheduling a commercial for some kind of feminine product, chances are you’ll chase that viewer away,” he said. “People often assume that, whether you’re running the wrong promo or the wrong commercial, people just kind of tune it out. Well, they don’t. They react to it and they use that as a cue to see if there’s something better on another channel.”
- Fading to black is also a huge turn-off.
“Black is a cue to change the channel, because it’s a transition for the network and it’s a transition to the viewer. So if you can eliminate the fade to black, you eliminate that subconscious cue to change the channel,” he said.