Among all national media, cable networks have been plagued with having some of the longest commercial pods. In addition, a large percentage of their "A" positions--the first commercial in a pod--is typically for cable networks' own program promos.
All that is set to change. The Comcast group of networks, for example, is looking to sell those "A" positions to advertisers. "We figure the solution lies with the viewer," Dave Cassaro, president of advertising sales for Comcast Networks, told an audience at MediaPost's Outfront Conference.
"We want to make the experience better for the viewer," he says. "But you can't rely on one technique." Cassaro says mixing up commercial pod lengths will work well with the original programming efforts of an E! or a Style network.
Turner Broadcasting is considering "bit coms" on TBS--short commercials after a program break that have comedians selling a product with a stand-up edge. Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president and general manager for Turner Entertainment Sales, says: "It makes sense to have a funny commercial in a funny program on a funny network."
Ed Erhardt, president of customer sales and marketing for ESPN, says ESPN is inking deals in which one advertiser will sponsor an entire single edition of "SportsCenter."
Still, many of these new efforts could lead to even more commercial "clutter," says Yaccarino. Yet overall, media agency executives agree that these types of commercial changes are necessary to keep audiences attentive in between shows.
Bill McOwen, director of media investments for MPG, says cable needs to do more: "Throw the public a curve ball--have a 50-second or 60-second or two-minute break."
Cable executives are ready to work with marketers to create these new efforts, but Erhardt says it needs to be "contextual" with the program--otherwise it doesn't work. McOwen adds: "When I watch television, I notice there is no story being told in the commercial break. That feminine-hygiene commercial that runs next to the automotive spot has people leaving the room."
Still, cable executives approach the issue of commercial ratings in the upfront cautiously. "Cable needs to make sure the data is accurate, consistent, and most important, predictable," says Turner's Yaccarino. "We are not there yet." But she added that under the right conditions, commercial ratings would play a role in the upfront negotiations.
ESPN comes at the commercial-ratings issue--along with the sometimes-attached metric of DVR viewership--from a different angle, since sports is virtually always viewed live. ESPN's Erhardt says for sports programmers, "the ability to monitor regionalization [of commercials] is pressing. Nielsen is working on this. In sports, of course, we regionalize a lot of our programming. I know that Fox and CBS will have the same challenges with the NFL."
Even then, media executives are concerned about back-office research systems that could be overloaded with new data and metrics. Says Larry Novenstern, executive vice president and joint managing director of Optimedia: "I'm a little concerned about overall stewardship, and how many people need to be hired to get these things done."