MTV VMA Miley Cyrus
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Oddball residents have long taken up space in MTV’s commercial breaks, which in years past came packed with surprise appearances by Beavis & Butt-Head, a ranting Denis Leary or Donal Logue as the spacey, rambling Jimmy the Cab Driver. The idea, back in the 1980s and 1990s, was to get viewers talking more about the network.

Now the Viacom-owned cable outlet is prepared to spice its ad interruptions with something a little different: newsy videos, lasting just five or ten seconds in length. The hope is to get advertisers to spend more with the network to be attached to content that speaks to the most current events and trends affecting MTV’s millennial audience.

MTV has tested the idea on weekends, in afternoon programming and during “tentpole” events. But now, network executives are expected to announce at a presentation later today, MTV will expand the practice to its entire schedule, perhaps running multiple video snippets based on trending topics and news events in each ad break, or “pod.” With a team of animators, writers and creative directors in place, the network expects that staff to hold meetings early in the day and devise timely vignettes that can go in air “within hours, if not minutes,” said Stephen Friedman, president of the network.

“When we look back” at recent efforts, said Friedman, “we see ratings increase and people are staying much longer through the commercial breaks because they are engaging through the conversation.” MTV’s attempt to break into its breaks speaks to a new desire by advertisers to indulge in “real-time” marketing, attaching their promotional pitches to the most current, trending content.

As more advertisers venture into social media, using Twitter to react to the latest jokes on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” or a Facebook page to respond to consumer questions, TV networks face a big challenge: How can they give their sponsors similar opportunities when the programs they run are made months in advance?

Recent MTV videos suggest there’s a way to bridge that gap. When Miley Cyrus last week tweeted to her fans that she wasn’t feeling well and visited the hospital, MTV seized the moment by posting a five-second animated video, Friedman recalled, that told the singer, “We hope you feel better.” The results, he said, were immediate: “We put it up on TV. We had people taking snapshots of the TV, ”he said, and eventually, Cyrus retweeted it. MTV estimates 18 million people saw the video segment across social-media outlets.

Other TV outlets are likely to tout similar ideas as the annual “upfront” season, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their advertising for the coming season, looms. Already, Time Warner’s Turner unit disclosed to Advertising Age that it will attempt to produce ads that play off current events and trending topics within 24 to 48 hours for sponsors who want such stuff. Meantime, Fusion, a news-and-culture cable outlet owned by Univision and ABC News, said it hired Felix Salmon, a popular blogger from Reuters, to produce content that could range from animated videos to data-driven analysis that would prove enticing to the young viewers it wants to attract to the network.

MTV seems to be working on tighter deadlines. “We have this big group of designers and writers and creators that are constantly churning out really topical commentary on what’s going on in culture. It should be interwoven on our air,” said Friedman. “They may be sponsoring ‘Awkward.’ If something is blowing up in culture, they are also going to want to be connected to that.”

There are other reasons to put original programming content into ad breaks. The potential to see something surprising in the space between commercials may prove enticing to viewers who might otherwise speed through such stuff with a DVR or simply turn away from the TV screen to use a tablet or smartphone (or just go to the kitchen for a snack). For MTV, such work is critical: The network’s younger audience is more digitally savvy than its elders and more prone to tune out the commercials that accompany programs like “The Real World” or “16 and Pregnant.”

Indeed, running short videos in ad breaks is an arrow that has been shot before by others who grew concerned about potential drops in viewership for commercials. In 2007, Fox ran short animated eight-second vignettes featuring a taxi driver named Oleg, who sometimes interviewed spoof versions of celebrities. In its early days, the CW tested a concept called “content wraps,” in which entire ad breaks were devoted to, say, a brief show from Procter & Gamble talking about celebrity news as well as its Herbal Essences shampoos.

MTV hopes to add more relevance to the equation, said Friedman. On Wednesday, MTV hired Richard Turley, formerly creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek, as its new senior vice president of storytelling and deputy editorial director. Turley is expected to oversee “visual storytelling” on the network and its digital extensions. “He can take the most compelling topic and suddenly in one image make it more relevant to a much broader audience,” said Friedman, adding that MTV expects to hire an editorial director in the weeks to come.

MTV’s snippets could play off “anything that impacts millennials” said Friedman. “If it is news on Obamacare or what goes on in Ukraine,” MTV’s staff will provide “spin” and “a unique slant”and put it up on air. MTV viewers “want a quick read,” he added. “They want to stay topical and we need to be breaking in.”

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