Ad Track: Trying more ways to snag viewers

The makeover continues this season for the traditional blocks of 30-second TV commercials known as ad "pods."

Digital video recorders, changing viewer habits, a cluttered ad landscape and new ratings measures are inspiring a search for more pod-busting ad techniques. They include teasers for upcoming longer ads (yes, commercials for commercials), ads with mini dramas or comedies and more roles for brands in the shows.

"For the first time, networks are searching for ways to get viewers to stay tuned to commercials," says Steven Sternberg, an audience analyst for ad-buying giant Magna Global. "And for the first time, they are working with advertisers to research the most effective commercial pod structures."

Not that networks are eager to give up the 30-second format, which still accounts for 57% of TV advertising, according to Nielsen Media Research. The 30-second format is cost-efficient to make, is a convenient standard selling unit and is easy to mix and match to build pods.

Networks also have been packing in more ad time, making it harder for an advertiser to get noticed in the clutter. The number of broadcast network prime-time ads in 2006 fell 1% vs. 2005 to 11,546, but the commercial time in 2006 rose 2.4% to 5,429 minutes.

Meanwhile, DVRs — which give viewers control over ads they see — are expected to be in 30% of U.S. TV households by 2009, according to eMarketer.

Advertisers, who evaluate their cost based on the number of viewers they reach, want to pay only for people who actually watch. Nielsen this fall is helping them calculate that by providing ratings for ad break viewing (including delayed via DVR) separate from the traditional rating for the program around the ads.

Pod-busting ideas:

•TBS. The cable comedy network will offer marketers "bitcoms" in the first quarter — an original comedy sketch involving a brand, followed by its ad.

TBS also is putting in more series this fall a type of promotional teaser tested last year in episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. The brief cartoon teaser in the first commercial break tells viewers a funny ad is coming up (users so far include Geico and Pepto-Bismol). In October, TBS added them to Family Guy and House of Payne. The network says they boost ad viewing and help attract humorous commercials for its shows.

"We thought, 'Doesn't it make sense to put a funny commercial in a funny show on a funny network?' Advertisers want their ad in the right environment," says Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president of Turner Entertainment ad sales and marketing. She says the "commercial for a commercial" helps retain viewers and boosts brand recall and likability for advertisers.

•Allstate all. In a deal with NBC, a safe-driving message was written into a recent episode of NBC's Friday Night Lights. The end of the show then blended seamlessly into a somber 60-second commercial about teen drivers, using Allstate spokesman Dennis Haysbert. The ad featured an original song by Jason Wade of the band Lifehouse about losing a friend in an accident.

"We're trying to connect advertising with our content," says Marianne Gambelli, president at NBC Network ad sales. "If people are engaged with the content and the characters, they'll engage with the product."

•Elizabeth Arden rden. On Wednesday, on VH1's Soul Vibe Awards Special, the company will launch fragrance M by Mariah Carey with a 2½-minute montage of images, trivia, concert footage of the pop star and an ad message.

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