Discovery Communications will further erase the lines between TV program and TV commercial when it unveils a new show later this week that was commissioned by film studio 20th Century Fox for the express purpose of getting viewers interested in the coming release of the Bible-themed film “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
At 8 p.m. Thursday, December 4th, Discovery will air “Surviving Exodus,” a modern-day examination of the famous plagues Moses visited upon the Egyptians in his efforts to win his followers’ freedom. The hour-long program will feature talent from across the company’s networks – Dave Salmoni, the animal trainer seen frequently on Animal Planet; Terry Schappert, from Discovery Channel’s “Dude, You’re Screwed”; and Hakeem Oluseyi, the astrophysicist who appears on Science Channel – and will air not only on Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Science Channel, Investigation Discovery and American Heroes Channel, but also on several of Discovery Communications’ overseas networks in nine other countries in subsequent days. Aaron Paul, the “Breaking Bad” actor who has a role in the film, will host.
Viewers will not be expressly told the show was created by Discovery for purposes of drawing attention to the Fox film, said Scott Felenstein, executive vice president for ad sales at Discovery Communications, and that is by design. Rather than jamming a commercial message into dialogue or placing a product on a show’s set, he said, “Advertisers want to be a part of creating content. They want to be able to distribute that content in other platforms and they want to be immersed in producing the content. Ultimately, you just want to produce content that viewers are going to like, and if you can get your message across in a subtle way, that’s a lot better than putting it where it doesn’t belong.”
Discovery’s effort – seven to eight months in the making, by Felenstein’s estimation – comes as other networks have appeared open to similar ideas. Last month, the top ad-sales executive at Time Warner’s CNN said sister network HLN was eager to run TV programs co-produced by sponsors. HLN recently debuted “Growing America: A Journey To Success,” a documentary series about entrepreneurs that is co-produced with InterContinental Hotels Group’s Holiday Inn. Several scenes in the series are set in the well-known hotel chain.
Securing similar pacts with sponsors “is a big part of our strategy in 2015,” Katrina Cukaj, executive vice president of ad sales for CNN, which oversees HLN, told Variety in a recent interview. “I would love to have a couple of brands a quarter.”
The concept of advertisement-as-TV-show is gaining more popularity, it seems, at a time when marketers are seeking – and often receiving – similar treatment in digital venues. So-called “native” advertisements are made to look much like the content on a web site or mobile venue that is the original draw to a particular outlet. The concept has spurred debate in recent months as critics wonder if consumers are more likely to be duped into believing the ad message is simply one more piece of the content they first sought, or assume the editorial staff is responsible for the advertising.
The technique also surfaces as more TV viewers are able to watch programming in venues that cut back on or eliminate the amount of traditional advertising that accompanies a show. As consumers increase the amount of viewing they do that is “unhitched” from a linear broadcast, advertisers may well seek out new ways of running commercials that are tied very specifically to the programs they sponsor, so they seem part of the viewing event, rather than a disruption of it.
Discovery’s Felenstein declined to comment on how the production of “Surviving Exodus” was financed or how much 20th Century Fox paid for the effort. He said Discovery had hired an outside production company but had producers from Science Channel and Discovery Channel in place in executive-producer roles to supervise the effort.A 20th Century Fox spokesman was not immediately able to offer comments from executives.
Viewers will have some understanding of the connection between “Surviving Exodus” and the movie it is helping to promote, said Felenstein. Ads for the movie will appear during commercial breaks, he said. “When the show ends, [viewers] will have experienced a very entertaining hour on the exodus from Egypt and they will also be very aware that there is a movie coming out in about a week on the exodus.” Commercials from other marketers will also be shown, he said.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is expected to launch December 12.
Felenstein expects to see more content sparked by advertisers hit TV screens in months to come. Marketers “used to want to be put into the content. Then they wanted to be ‘integrated’ into the content,” he said. “Now they want to be part of the content.”