‘American Idol’ Audience Seeing Double With Pop-Up Ads

Fox Network tests DVR-proof strategy of placing commercials side-by-side with programming

Here’s one thing you’re unlikely to hear on “American Idol” any time soon: “We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors.”

The Fox network has expanded its use of a format that unspools TV ads alongside the program they would normally interrupt. That means there is no break for commercials; instead, they are part of the show.

During the Feb. 18-19 broadcasts of “American Idol,” Fox used what it calls a “double box” — one for the ads, another for a look at goings-on from the stage and set of the show — in hopes of keeping viewers from channel-surfing or fast-forwarding with their DVR. Fox has expanded its use of the idea, which it first tested on “Idol” last season with what were then the program’s three main sponsors: Coca-Cola, AT&T and Ford (AT&T is still an advertiser, but has ended its larger affiliation with the show). The Feb. 18-19 episodes featured 25 spots from 13 different advertisers.

With DVR use continuing to erode viewership of commercials, there has long been talk of creating new types of ad breaks that keep some sort of content from the program onscreen while the promotional pitches fly. Fox is borrowing a page from sports outlets like Turner Sports, ESPN and Fox Sports, which have split their screens during event telecasts to run ads alongside action.

For now, Fox intends to keep its double box in “Idol” only, said Laurel Bernard, the network’s exec veep of marketing, though she added that the net is considering the strategy for other programming and events with live elements, such as awards shows or “So You Think You Can Dance.”

The idea at present is to keep using “Idol” as a testing ground while developing research to show advertisers that viewers stick around to watch ads presented side by side with shows. “Showing them we are retaining more viewers through the break is really going to motivate them to continue to participate,” she said.

In decades past, the notion of airing multiple pieces of content on TV might have raised voices of protest. With use of smartphones and mobile tablets on the rise in 2014, however, more consumers have grown accustomed to the idea of splitting their attention while consuming media. Fox has armed itself with data from Boston-based Innerscope Research, which measures response to ads and programing, and suggests viewers of the double-box blurbs remember them better than traditional commercials.

Fox’s moves with “Idol” come as the TV biz girds for the annual upfront advertising sales season. The market had shown some softness in the fourth quarter, but media companies have indicated that pricing in the so-called scatter market — ad time bought up as needed rather than in advance through upfront negotiations — is growing more robust.

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