For Many Networks, Less Is More When It Comes to Ad Loads During Upfronts

NBCU and Fox will tout new offerings to reduce clutter this week

Fox and NBC, in particular, are making their prime-time ad blocks premium real estate. NBC, Fox
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Broadcast upfront week is usually a time for networks to promise buyers more of everything next season, from new shows that audiences will love to new ways that brands can reach consumers. But this year, several media companies will be focusing on less, not more, as they tout recently announced efforts to declutter their prime-time shows by cutting ad loads this fall, which they claim will increase engagement and brand recognition.

“We know that the live, linear viewing experience needs to change. We are serving a consumer who has come to expect fewer ads, and more relevant ads,” NBCUniversal ad sales chief Linda Yaccarino told Adweek in February. At her company’s presentation Monday morning at Radio City Music Hall in New York, she’ll talk about reducing ads by 10 percent in all NBCU’s prime-time original series across its entire broadcast and cable portfolio (50-plus shows in total), and creating a 60-second “prime pod” of audience-targeted advertising in the first or last breaks of all those shows.

By reducing clutter and giving that extra time back to each series, “we wanted to make television better, and make television smarter,” said Yaccarino.

That is also a key component of Fox Networks Group’s upfront push on Monday afternoon. While its plan is still evolving, the company expects to ditch its traditional ad loads during Fox Broadcasting’s Sunday night comedy block, much as it did for FX’s VOD linear and digital offerings last year. They will be replaced with JAZ pods: 60-second breaks with two ads—or Just the A (first) and Z (last) spots in a pod—which Fox says will cut ad time within the shows by 40 percent. That additional time will be devoted to what are expected to be three- to six-minute branded content blocks (internally known as Fox Blocks), which will air between each show.

“Unless we change the way we think and what we do, we will fall behind and we won’t succeed.”
Carrie Drinkwater, svp, MullenLowe Mediahub

As audiences migrate to ad-free outlets like Netflix, HBO and Showtime, “brands need television advertising to fuel their growth,” said Bruce Lefkowitz, evp, advertising sales, Fox Networks Group. By “touching” premium content on either side, as the 22 spots in those 11 JAZ pods will do during Fox’s two-hour Sunday lineup, “you have a better chance of having that messaging resonate, and the brand recall and favorability improve.”

The branded content between Fox’s shows is still a work in progress, and “could be everything from movie trailers to long-form content to custom-created stuff. It could be a sports break, a Sunday night fantasy update … it’s really limited only by our creativity,” said Lefkowitz. “The key thing for the advertiser is, how often do you get the opportunity for long-form, prime-time real estate?” While those Fox Blocks would seem to break up the audience flow from one show to the next, a Fox source said the network isn’t worried about the potential effect on ratings, and noted that delayed viewing is more common among the younger audiences that watch the Sunday animated shows.

The chance to have their brands appear in a less-cluttered environment is enticing for buyers. “I am all for it. We need new ways to engage consumers with content,” said Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, MullenLowe Mediahub. “Unless we change the way we think and what we do, we will fall behind and we won’t succeed.”

But while marketers welcome the offering, many aren’t happy about paying a premium to help clean up what they see as a mess of the networks’ own making. “We didn’t ask them to load up their pods with all those commercials; they did it for the bottom line,” said another buyer. “Even when we moved to C3, we split the difference, but there’s no splitting the difference here. The networks should be giving more on that end, because they put us in this situation.”

While that push and pull will continue throughout upfront negotiations, the company that helped pave the way when it comes to reducing ad loads—Turner, which two years ago cut ads up to 50 percent on TNT and truTV originals—is happy to have some company in its efforts to improve the viewer experience by cutting ads. “I’m excited about all the announcements from Fox and NBCU,” said Donna Speciale, president of Turner Ad Sales, who will make her upfront pitch Wednesday morning. “That’s what has to happen. It has to be an industry transformation, because Turner couldn’t be the only one doing it.”

This story first appeared in the May 14, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.