As TV Networks start reducing their commercial time, on-air promotions will need to find a new home.
Seeing Amazon Prime, Netflix, and HBO triumph in the Emmys 2018 added fuel to a question that has been rumbling inside my head for quite a while. How useful are Television’s on-air promotions during commercial times?
Last March, in the LA Times, Stephen Battaglio reported a recent initiative from NBC and FOX to reduce the time of commercial time during their TV shows because consumers continue to skip the breaks. The announcement was made in their recent upfronts for the 2018-2019 season.
I have been on the producer’s end, and even though I understand this is one of the main ways television channels pay their bills, I have seen the constant struggle to maintain people connected to your programs during commercials, especially nowadays that digital has taken over and radically changed viewing habits of an audience that demands immediacy. For a one hour program, we would end producing around 42 to 43 minutes, with breaks of more than 3 minutes. The recent proposal by the networks is to reduce the commercial time, because they want to see legacy media behaving more like digital. They also considered that with less real state in the inventory of commercials, prices to advertise will go up, as only exclusive clients will have access to the reduced commercial time.
As I was reading about the new initiatives, I remembered having this conversation with colleagues a couple of years ago, and we all agreed that the transformation of the on-air promotions department was needed sooner than later. If people were already changing the channel during the commercials, why are we still promoting our programs exclusively during the commercials? It doesn’t matter what variation of commercial or trick in the bag you may have, when it comes to commercials people are changing the channels or recording in their DVRs to watch at their own leisure with less interruptions. You could plan a huge 30 minute first segment to keep people connected, add a cluster buster in the middle of the commercial to pretend that the breaks are shorter, write the best tease you can imagine to keep people hooked waiting for the next segment, it doesn’t matter. It is like the audience can smell a commercial. The second they listen the anchor’s tone of voice changing, or the theme music playing in the background, the risk of losing them increases.
Reducing the commercial pods will obviously affect the time used by the on-air promotions department. I agree these changes will keep people connected longer, but as anybody working in the on-air promotions will tell you. If you only stick to advertising in the commercial break, and do not promote your programs, ratings will also fall. But if we add the on-air promotions to the reduced commercial pods, we could lose money, and if we extend the commercial breaks to add on-air promotions we lose ratings as well. Sounds like a catch 22, right? Well, only if we continue to imagine on-air promotions as they have always been.
The issue at hand is that television executives need to continue to explore new ways to generate buzz when it comes to promote their own programming. This can not be left on the hands of the producers alone. It is imperative that they consider the constant chatter in digital and social media, not as novelties or empty one-sided initiatives, but as part of a serious, and organic on-air promotions strategy that collaborates with digital, research, and marketing. Remember, just as the audience can smell a commercial in television, they can also smell sponsored content or forced marketing strategies anywhere. The potential to keep the audience connected is getting better and faster, so the time needed to realize this and take action to adjust and comply with the audience needs is crucial to remain relevant. These strategies should be considered a serious enterprise, and it is not something to leave to the production teams, or the interns. This needs to be handle by somebody that knows the drill, and believes in the content being promoted at all levels, and at all times.
As advertisers need to know the effectiveness of their campaigns, it is not news that Nielsen is measuring the audience during commercials to see if people remain connected during the breaks. Now I ask myself, if your internal on-air promotions department is asking Nielsen for the data to measure the effectiveness of their own promos. If your network is, well congratulations, but if your network is not doing this, is important to start pushing executives to develop strategies that adjust to the new patterns of media consumption. Once your department embraces these changes, understand that the trend is to be connected with your audience at all times. Long gone are the days of preparing a big campaign to promote a specific program and move to the next project right after a big premier.
Sometimes, I even think the on-air promotion department should work inside the production teams and be part of the day to day. Their headcounts might end up being absorbed by the production teams, as their job will need to evolve and live the show experience, just like show producers do. They will eventually be in charge of writing in-show promotions, collaborate with designers and the marketing team with the perspective and knowledge that only an insider can have. They will sit during the team’s meetings, and as the team prepares the content of the day, the on-air promotions producer will develop daily promotion strategies, writing and interacting with the viewers in all the digital outlets. Of course, I can already hear the complaint regarding a lack of headcounts, and budget needed to accomplish this, but the difference is that this on-air promotions personnel is already working for the network, it is just a matter of changing the allocation, and finding them a desk inside the production team. Once this is done, your programming could start establishing new priorities to jump ahead of the curve, and understand that commercials as we know them will eventually cease to exist. Yes, I know a big chunk of the money comes from traditional media commercial inventory, but the money will no longer be there, at least not in the same quantities, when OTT services such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, continue to offer better solutions to our evolving viewing patterns, and as technology keeps getting better, and producing more accurate data to measure the Return of Investment of any given campaign. Advertisers want to put their money where there is value, commercials have value if they have an audience, and is no surprise that the ratings for traditional TV channels continue to decline.
The recent triumph of Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in the Emmys brought flashbacks of a huge billboard I saw in New York last summer. My initial reaction was to ask: Why are they promoting a show that I saw last year? Then my rational-self kicked in, and remembered that this was not regular television. I was so fascinated to see that when these programs are promoted, creatives consider more than premieres, and can’t elaborate a call to action for a specific day or time. The habits have changed. People watch their shows whenever they want, and the promotions are usually dominated by the buzz in social media. As people watch these Netflix or Amazon series at their own pace, the typical next day television water cooler conversation in the office is gone. So people have turned to social media forums, and hashtags to organize and find people to talk about the programs they like so much. The team behind the promotion of Mrs Maisel have mastered this. They are even creating photo ops by placing a sculpture with the word “Marvelous” in the streets of Los Angeles, pushing whoever takes a picture to use the hashtag, share, and continue the conversation.
The format might be different for these series, as they do invest a lot of money to create seasons. The reality might be different for networks that need to promote daily programs, for this reason again it would be ideal to have the on-air promotions producer sitting with one show production team or at least handling one shift, such as morning or prime-time. That person or persons should work very close with the digital team, and the research departments to monitor the effectiveness of these communications, just as they already do with the programs.
Is your media organization rethinking the on-air promotions department? Are they sitting right next to the digital team, and the production team creating new strategies and finding new places to position their on-air promotions?
On-air promotions is essential to create awareness of any production. It needs to be malleable, it needs to be customizable to speak to the different languages of the different segments that consume the programs. The tag lines, and calls to action must direct the viewer’s anywhere they want to consume your programs. From the perspective of an editorial producer, the on-air promotions addition to the team could be one of the best assets to spread the word of the daily efforts being done.
Commercial pods will start and continue to be reduced. By creating scarcity in the inventory being offered the prices will go up. The limited time to promote will be premium real estate for any media company. The new viewing patterns will be like the gentrification of the on-air promotions, but they won’t disappear, they just need to find a new home, or a new distribution channel. The function of the on-air promotions department will need to be modified, then modified again, and again, and again. Their function is vital, and it will not be eliminated, but it will change so much that in the blink of an eye, it would become unrecognizable. Not everyone will be happy, but the evolution is unavoidable.
This could be a great opportunity for you to lead the change if nobody in your department is recognizing this.