‘Split’ Decision: Fox Tries ‘Idol’ Ads On Second Screen

In effort to keep viewers interested, Fox to test 'double box' format already used in sports broadcasts

american idol

If some TV networks have their way, the phrase “We’ll be right back after these commercials” could become a thing of the past.

During Thursday’s broadcast of “American Idol,” Fox will run a set of ads from Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T – all without interrupting fans’ view of what’s happening on one of America’s most-watched programs. There won’t be a commercial break, per se, because viewers will be offered a behind-the-scenes look at what’s taking place on the show at the same time as the commercials roll.

Borrowing techniques that have gained popularity during certain sports broadcasts on Fox, ESPN and networks owned by Time Warner’s Turner, Fox will show two boxes on screen. The larger box will be devoted to the ads, while the smaller one will continue to let viewers watch what is taking place on “Idol.” The audio will be devoted to the advertisers, who will also get to fill the space around this “double box” with messages or other elements of their own design.

The maneuver is a test, said Toby Byrne, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting Co. and Fox Sports Media Group, but the hope is viewers become “more engaged with the programming and the commercials.” The appearance of the “double box” on “Idol” marks the first time the network has tested the idea in its regular prime-time entertainment schedule, and in non-sports content.

Distracted Audience

Fox is really splitting its screen to keep viewers from splitting from theirs. The “double box” is the latest salvo from TV nets eager to keep couch potatoes staring at the boob tube while a host of new technologies try to get them looking at something else. Where TV viewers of a different era had only the bathroom or the call of a snack to lure them away from commercials, modern TV fans can be tempted by the fast-forwarding capabilities of a DVR, conversations taking place about their programs on Facebook and Twitter or trivia and fun provided by a so-called “second screen”app available on tablets and smartphones.

Advertisers are looking for ways to “feel close to being part of the action” as viewers grow more prone to scampering away from the TV during ad interruptions, said Steve Kalb, a senior vice president of video investment at Boston ad agency Mullen.

Already, Fox Sports is “making a real commitment to using this format on Fox Sports 1,” its new cable-sports network, said Mike Mulvihill, senior vice president of programming and research at Fox Sports. “We’re going to try to use it as much as the marketplace will allow us. I’d like to see us doing it in at least a couple of commercial breaks in every event that we do.” He envisions TV viewers watching pitchers warm up during baseball broadcasts in one part of the screen while ads roll in another.

The Fox broadcast network could gain with the unusual ads. While “American Idol” remains one of TV’s most popular programs, it is aging and its ratings have tumbled. In the current season, the show has seen its viewership among people between the ages of 18 and 49 tumble 24%, according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at ad buyer Horizon Media. Since the ad break will take place with the show still on air, audiences could be tempted to stay, which could boost the program’s commercial ratings, or “C3” – the measure of how many viewers watched ads as many as three days after its initial air date – that advertisers use to judge its performance.

The idea to try this on “Idol” has been in discussions on and off for several seasons, said Fox’s Byrne. “If this is an innovation that can lead to greater engagement and more commercial viewing, especially across the entire show, then that’s good for the program,” he said.

TV Viewing Patterns In Flux

And then there is the question of whether audiences will take to the idea. Thanks to widespread use of computer screens and tablets, consumers have grown more accustomed to seeing multiple elements on screen. The TV networks themselves have accelerated the attitude by running pop-up promotions at the bottom of their screens during programming. And could the bigger size of today’s TV monitors leave room for additional elements?

Indeed, prior to 2006, viewers demonstrated stern resistance to the idea of mingling content and commercial messages on screen, said Duane Varan, chief research officer at the Disney Media & Advertising Lab, a Walt Disney-owned research facility that tests audience reaction to new on-screen elements for ESPN and ABC. They found such ideas “obnoxious,” he said. But digital entertainment has changed attitudes, he suggested. “Between 2006 and 2009, when online video was taking off, there was a very dramatic shift in consumer sentiment,” he recounted. By 2009, he added, “a lot of that had gone away.”

Many networks have found success with running program elements in ad breaks. Think CNBC’s business-news ticker, or ESPN’s “Bottom Line” news crawl. In 2010, CNN experimented with running a small window of the set on its now-canceled “John King Live” at the bottom of the screen during commercials.

Split Views on Split Screens

When it comes to bringing ads into the show, however, networks may have to tread carefully. Marketer reaction to the split screens in sports programming has been “mixed,” said Mullen’s Kalb. “Are viewers paying attention to your commercials or are they paying attention to the car spinning around the track at the same time?” he asked.

Fox Sports is armed with research culled from its split-screen ad executions during such sporting events as NASCAR racing and the Cotton Bowl. Citing a unit of Nielsen that tracks viewer likeability of ads and programs, Fox says double-box spots in the 2013 Cotton Bowl improved viewers’ ability to remember the advertiser 62% more than regular ads in the same game, and their ability to remember the message of the commercials by 32%.

Typically, Fox Sports expects to lose about 6% of its audience during ad breaks, said Mulvihill. But an analysis of the Cotton Bowl showed Fox lost no male viewers between 18 and 34 during double-box ad breaks. “There is some evidence this format helps us keep more eyeballs,” he said.

At ESPN, which uses more of a “side by side” format, said Varan, executives have experimented with the on-screen configuration of ads and Nascar content. The advertiser gets a slightly bigger portion of the screen, and research shows that viewers look at the ad as opposed to program content about 65% of the time it’s on the screen, he said. Viewers of ESPN NASCAR broadcasts that contained the side-by-side advertising preferred the new format over traditional ad breaks by 82% of viewers, he said. “It’s less disruptive to the program.”

If ads can appear alongside Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj, will it be much longer before they surface alongside the crew at “NCIS” or the doctors of “Grey’s Anatomy”? Neither CBS nor ABC has tried such a thing in a primetime scripted program, said a spokesperson at each network. NBC in the past has run ads for movies from sister studio Universal at the bottom of the screen during such programs as “Heroes.”

At present, said Fox’s Byrne, only “Idol” – and, presumably, other shows of its kind – lends itself to such stuff. “These shows are live. In that sense, they have that urgency associated with a live competition, much like a live sporting event.” Viewers of such fare may not have to bother with commercial breaks at some point in the future, but they will still have to contend with pitches on their screen