CNN Crafts Commercial for Debate Night That Looks Like a News Show

CNN loves to tell viewers when it’s covering breaking news. Tonight, it will also tell them that it’s breaking tradition.

For two and a half minutes during its coverage leading up to this evening’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, CNN will air a commercial for cable-TV’s Epix network that will look a lot like its regular programming. Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chair and frequent cable-news analyst; Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts Congressman; Amy Holmes, a news anchor who has appeared on The Blaze and MSNBC; and Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian, will all hold forth on what is supposed to be a stunning revelation by a former U.S. President.

The people on screen are very recognizable in real life, but they will be talking about fiction: a disclosure made by Richard Graves, a former President who, years after he leaves office, decides to right the wrongs he feels his administration created. A series centered on the character, played by Nick Nolte (pictured, above), is slated to debut on October 16 on Epix, the premium cable network backed by Viacom, Lionsgate Entertainment and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “I have a message for our candidates,” says Graves, during the longer-than-usual advertisement. “Tell the truth. Keep your promises.”

The words and the moderators ought to fit in quite nicely during CNN’s preliminary coverage of the event, and that is what executives at both Epix and the Time Warner-owned cable-news outlet are banking on. “The best way to build awareness of this is to emulate reality, to have some fun with this and almost parody CNN,” said Mark Greenberg, chief executive of Epix.

Advertising once interrupted the content into which viewers tuned. Now marketers are devising commercials that look just like the programming that attracted couch potatoes in the first place. The Epix ad was crafted by a unit of CNN called Courageous that is essentially an in-house studio comprised of designers and filmmakers – even former journalists – who create what is known in the media industry as “branded content” that emulates the show crowds chose to watch, hopefully keeping them from toggling away when a commercial pitch hits the airwaves.

“The idea here is how do we improve the consumer experience within a program environment?” said Katrina Cukaj, an executive vice president who oversees ad sales for CNN, a unit of Time Warner’s Turner. “How do we improve the advertising effectiveness?”

The commercial’s similarity to a CNN broadcast has not gone unnoticed by executives. A gold bar with the phrase “Content by Epix” will appear throughout the ad. In earlier discussions, the identification was going to surface on screen three times during the course of the commercial. “It is very clearly labeled,” said Cukaj. “We take that very seriously and work very closely with our standards and practices team to make sure that our consumers know what is editorial and what is a commercial.” The two-and-a-half minute vignette will run in the last commercial break before the debate starts, said Greenberg, while a 30-second reminding viewers of “Graves” will turn up in the first ad break after the event ends.

The commercial should appear before record crowds. The first presidential debate of 2012 between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney attracted around 67 million viewers, and some estimates call for tonight’s event, transmitted by multiple broadcast and cable networks, to attract more than 80 million. CBS, NBC and CNN have sold out their ad inventory set to appear in pre-  and post-debate coverage, with 30-second ads on broadcast said to be going for $200,000 to $250,000.

The launch of Courageous in June of last year shows just how quickly CNN is breaking with old rules it once held. In a different era, the network shunned ad concepts that played too closely off the network’s editorial work, the idea being that such material might suggest CNN’s journalism was swayed by a sponsor. Now, many outlets are testing new philosophies as the advertisers that pay them millions of dollars demand commercials that consumers armed with DVRs, streaming-video tablets and other new technologies can’t ignore with the touch of a remote or the flip of a finger on a touch screen.

Other outlets are working with these concepts as well. Fox last year allowed Pepsi to involve itself in a three-party story arc on its hit drama “Empire” that culminated in a single commercial during the show that provided the capper to the plot. In late 2014, Discovery Channel aired a show called “Surviving Exodus” that used recognizable talent from its parent company’s cable networks to examine the plagues Moses visited upon the Egyptians. The program was commissioned by 20th Century Fox, which wanted to gin up attention for its Bible-themed movie “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

Some of CNN’s work may be driven by new demand the network is seeing from entertainment companies, a category that has not been the network’s strongest in the past. These advertisers often run hard-to-miss ads that involve creative use of trailers and sneak previews, and are willing to experiment with breaking Madison Avenue conventions. During a December telecast by CNN of a Republican debate late last year, Netflix aired what at first looked to be a presidential campaign ad, but was really a spot promoting Frank Underwood, the fictional U.S. President in its signature original series “House of Cards.”

Hollywood has knocked more strongly on CNN’s door since the network ramped up production of non-fiction series and documentaries in primetime. Epix, for example, started advertising on CNN earlier this year.  These types of advertisers flock to big-audience TV events, and the recent political cycle has provided many of them in the form of debates, town halls and convention coverage.

With hundreds of new series launching across broadcast, cable and streaming video, an outlet like Epix can’t afford to be demure, said Greenberg. “You need to be creative. You can’t do the same things as everyone else.” If the concept works, CNN viewers may see the Epix ad’s gold bar showing up in CNN commercials with greater frequency.

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