Fall TV’s Most Interesting Ads Will Be Served by ‘Empire,’ Stephen Colbert, Neil Patrick Harris

Stephen Colbert Emmy Variety Race
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Are these the kinds of TV commercials that viewers won’t ignore?

As the new fall season looms, TV networks are offering a bevy of avant-garde advertising ideas designed to push back against the consumer’s natural tendency to spend a commercial break with his or her head buried in a smartphone or speed past pitches with the help of the fast-forward button. Viewers may see everything from CBS latenight show host Stephen Colbert talking about a product in his own inimitable manner to ads from Telemundo that travel from TV screen to tablet.

Whether the ideas are successful, of course, remains to be seen. But TV networks can no longer run the same coterie of 15- and 30-second pitches and hope for the best. The number of people watching traditional “linear” TV is forecast to peak in 2015, according to ZenithOptimedia, a large ad-buying operation owned by France’s Publicis Groupe, and  fall for the first time in 2016. Zenith predicts the number of linear TV viewers will rise 3.1% this year, then fall 1.9% in 2016 and 0.9% the following year. To keep Madison Avenue interested, Big TV has to offer new ways to make the most of the audience that’s showing up.

The new ad ideas suggest TV networks and their sponsors have caught on to an idea that most of their viewers knew long ago: Consumers are drawn to a favorite program, not the commercials that interrupt it. That’s why the networks have in recent years put more effort into coming up with advertising that dovetails with the themes of the program it supports. If viewers tune in for a show, they’ll want to watch ads that make reference to that show — or at least, that’s how the thinking goes. Consider ads in AMC’s “The Walking Dead” that feature zombies; the “Bud Light Bar” made part of “The Late Late Show” hosted by James Corden on CBS; or Walmart commercials featuring tunes that are an integral part of live screenings of “Peter Pan” and “The Sound of Music” shown on NBC.

Below, Variety reviews some of the most interesting offers to surface during recent upfront talks between the TV outlets and their sponsors. Will they work? You’ll have to tune in in a few weeks to see.

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS’ GRAB BAG: When NBC introduced its new live primetime variety program, “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris,” it also teased a vague concept that would allow viewers to “win the ads.”

Will fans be able to take home something from every advertiser that supports the show? The very idea conjures up some lucky winner grabbing hold of a cornucopia of prizes a la the “Showcase” on “The Price Is Right.”

The latest word is that the idea is in flux and being reworked, but NBC’s intention remains to do something eyebrow-raising with advertisers in the show. Besides, Harris is no stranger to Madison Avenue salesmanship:

EMPIRE” BUILDING: Fox again expects to air its big hit drama “Empire” with limited commercial interruption — meaning the network will likely try to seek a premium from sponsors for putting their pitches in a TV show with fewer commercials and, as a result, a better chance of standing out to viewers. Pepsi and Ford Motor’s Lincoln have signed on as the show’s official beverage and automotive sponsor, respectively.

Fox put this idea into place last season, hoping to build support for a program in its freshman year. A 30-second spot in “Empire”then could be had for an average of $138,000, according to Variety’s annual survey of primetime commercial prices. In the coming season, “Empire” is projected to have one of the highest levels of commercial viewing, so that price is likely to soar significantly.

To be sure, viewers can still skip past or otherwise ignore the commercials, but the hope is that with fewer national ads in the show, each one will be more prominent — even in the blur of a fast-forwarding session. Fox has tried similar stuff in the past, running episodes of “Dollhouse” and “Fringe” with fewer commercials in the 2008-09 season, and seeking higher prices for them. Between 2002 and 2004, Ford Motor would sponsor a commercial-free premiere of Fox’s “24” by bookending the episode with longer-than-usual commercials.

‘ACCION’-PACKED: Telemundo is known for its primetime “telenovelas,” but in 2015 intends to find ways to bring the sudsy action from those series off the TV screen and over to viewers’ mobile tablets while the program in is motion.

During key episodes of some of the shows, the network will make extra content available to so-called second screens, vows Mike Rosen, exec VP of ad sales for NBCUniversal’s Hispanic and news programming. Let’s say a character gets a secret text from a well-wisher. Viewers might see that message surface on their smartphone screen. In another scenario, viewers might be able to get video on their tablet of two characters who go behind closed doors in the TV show.

Some commercials that appear alongside the dramas will follow that model, said Rosen. A piece of content from the ad will make its way to the viewer’s device. “It could be something that has an interplay what’s going on on the main screen,” Rosen said. “We will work with the advertiser” on the final format.

COLBERT COMMERCIALS: CBS has made no secret of the fact that its new “Late Show” host, Stephen Colbert, is willing to help advertisers craft pitches for his program. Now viewers — and potential sponsors, too — want to know what form those commercials might take.

Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien and James Corden have all embraced the idea of serving up commercials during their wee-hours shows, but Colbert’s twist on the process can be barbed. In segments delivered on his “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, Colbert would poke at the sponsors while hawking their wares. In 2012, for instance, he made fun of guidelines Kraft sent him on how to promote Wheat Thins. The spots have proven memorable, however, because they are delivered with the comedian’s sensibility and fit better in the program than a buttoned-down pitch guided by an ad-agency’s script.

Can they work on a broadcast network with a strong desire for getting better returns on its latenight schedule? For some, the question might be more interesting than whether Colbert can trump Kimmel or Fallon in the ratings.

COMCAST CLUES: Like many other media companies, NBCUniversal is offering to use all kinds of data to help advertisers find the groups of consumers most likely to buy their products. But the company is working to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.

For those advertisers investing a certain amount with NBCU, the media conglomerate will help find the exact programs in its basket of TV networks that reach consumers most likely to buy, say, a midsize car, explained Rosen, the ad-sales executive. NBCU uses set-top box viewing data along with third-party information from a variety of providers, such as IHS Automotive. In 2016, NBCU expects to be able to offer set-top box from its owner, Comcast, the largest cable distributor in the U.S. (at present, said Rosen, the information comes from third-party data).

This stuff seems wonky when compared to a latenight host giving shout-outs on a show, but it is emblematic of the new elements advertisers are demanding from TV as one of its most crucial seasons begins.

AD-MAN ANTICS: TV viewers know Donny Deutsch from his time as a talk-show host for CNBC or as a contributor to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” but the bulk of his career was spent running an ad agency, managing people who devised commercials for Snapple, Ikea and DirecTV. Who better to try to sell products while also putting on an entertaining TV program?

That is the premise that has been pitched to potential sponsors of “Donny!,” a six-episode half-hour sitcom on NBCUniversal’s USA in which Deutsch will star. He plays a daytime talk show host who is also a single father, but vows he will “break” the storyline to hawk sponsors’ products. At a recent cocktail part held at Deutch’s Manhattan townhouse, he told the assemblage that he would be willing to try anything and that his years of Madison Avenue experience gave him an edge on others trying to to similar acts of what is known in the business as “product integration.”

DISNEY’S GENDER BLENDER: At Walt Disney, ESPN has long been a place to reach guys who love sports, while ABC has stood as a great venue to reach women, who flock to such sudsy dramas as “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Scandal.” Now the company is tentatively trying to sell both genders at once.

At ESPN’s upfront presentation this past May, executives announced the debut of the “ESPY Awards” on ABC and also put forth the idea that advertisers might try buying both ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” radio program in tandem with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The latter was scrapped for logistical and cost reasons, but the company has since announced the debut of Saturday-night basketball games produced by ESPN that will air this season on ABC.

At a time when advertisers want to carve niches of consumers out of TV networks’ broad audiences, there’s little sense in keeping male and female viewers apart. One would expect Disney to roll out more initiatives of this type in the future.