When Fox revives its cult-favorite drama “The X-Files” on January 24, viewers will have to, as usual, slog through the commercials, including those from one of the series’ primary sponsors, Ford Motor. Or will they?
Viewers who turn to Fox.com to sample the episodes starting January 25 will be able to do so largely commercial-free – if they agree to view a 60-second pitch for the coming super-hero movie “Deadpool” in advance of their screenings. “Before the content starts is a great time to get someone to transfer their attention to an advertising message,” said David Levy, co-founder and chief operating officer of TrueX, a Fox unit that specializes in developing new kinds of ad formats and that is responsible for the “Deadpool” interaction.
Fox’s move to find a way to weave advertising into an on-demand experience comes as media companies are grappling with new kinds of viewing behaviors. More consumers are growing accustomed to binge-viewing sessions of programs available via Netflix or Amazon, which come without commercials. Yet Fox counts on advertising support.
The company has tested these waters in the recent past. Last summer, viewers of Fox.com were able to watch episodes of “MasterChef Junior” without ads by choosing to watch a promotion from California Milk Advisory Board before the episode began. Again, TrueX designed the interaction between viewer and Madison Avenue entreaty.
The “Deadpool” ad unit shows a 30-second trailer for the film, which stars Ryan Reynolds and hits U.S. theaters on February 12. Viewers are then invited to interact with a set of “playing cards” that feature background on each of the film’s main characters. After 30 seconds of interaction, they can move on to watch the full uninterrupted episode of “The X-Files,” or choose to explore the cards further or share the “Deadpool” content via social media outlets.
Viewers of the “X Files” episodes will find the “Deadpool” opener hard to forget, said Levy. While there will be no full-fledged ad breaks for those who choose to watch the trailer, the audience will see reminders during their session that 20th Century Fox, the movie studio distributing the movie, helped make it possible, said Levy. The seconds-long prompts come largely because the episodes have quick stops and starts at the end and beginning of certain scenes, a nod to the fact the shows will have to break for commercials on traditional TV.
Fox acquired TrueX in late 2014 for approximately $200 million, part of a new push by James Murdoch, now chief executive of the parent 21st Century Fox, to devise new ways of weaving commercials and content together in an era when consumers have new ways to ignore traditional pitches.
The TrueX method has its roots in efforts by a nascent Hulu, the video-streaming service which Fox partly owns, to lure advertisers. When the video hub debuted in 2007, one of the formats it experimented with was a “choose-your-own-ad” concept that allowed users to select the type of commercial presented in advance of an ad-free streaming of a desired program. Some users, the theory at the time went, might prefer a car ad over one for diapers.
“This is a spectacular and innovative approach to advertising that is becoming the new standard for delivering quality content to consumers in an on-demand world,” said Marc Weinstock, president of domestic theatrical marketing, at 20th Century Fox. “We’re excited to be bringing ‘Deadpool’ to viewers of ‘The X-Files’ in this way.”
Ad prices were not disclosed, but some marketers may find a digital association with “The X-Files” to be more appealing than accompanying the series on traditional TV. The series is, after all, the most expensive freshman program for marketers in the 2015-2016 season, according to Variety’s annual survey of primetime ad prices. The average cost of a 30-second ad in the series comes to $195,893.