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Turner Tests TV Commercials With On-Screen Timer That Ticks Down Seconds Until Program Returns

TNT's 'Animal Kingdom' countdown clock part of programmer's efforts to reduce ad clutter

Animal Kingdom TNT
Courtesy of TNT

TV viewers, generally speaking, hate ads. Now Turner Broadcasting — hoping to deter audiences from skipping or tuning out commercials — has ripped a page from the online-video playbook with the test of a countdown clock showing exactly how much time is left in every ad break.

TNT’s freshman crime drama “Animal Kingdom” this summer included a timer at the bottom of the screen, on live TV and on VOD systems of pay-TV affiliates, which popped up with 60 seconds left in an ad break. Other TV programs like NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” have used similar on-screen clocks, but Turner’s implementation is believed to be a first for primetime television.

Donna Speciale, president of Turner Ad Sales, said the ad timer in “Animal Kingdom” is part of the programmer’s larger initiative to test reduced ad loads, with spots sold at higher rates. The show is the first TNT original series to run about 50% fewer ads, with the hour-long broadcasts carrying 8-10 minutes of advertising vs. an average of 15 minutes regularly. Turner’s TruTV is set to launch its primetime slate in the fourth quarter of 2016 with a similarly truncated ad load for shows including “Impractical Jokers” and “Billy on the Street.”

“We want the viewer understand that the (ad) experience is going to feel a lot different,” she said. “The clock is there to show them that the pods are shorter… We need to be able to push it out to have the viewer know that it’s even happening.”

Such countdown clocks have been a staple of Internet video for years, with ad-supported sites like YouTube and Hulu showing the seconds remaining in an ad break (although Hulu has now phased out the free version of its service). The idea: to keep viewers glued to the video instead of clicking away, and ideally get them to register the advertiser’s message.

Turner’s adoption of the concept for TV is a tacit admission that in a world flooded with mobile devices and other distractions, telling viewers how much longer they have to sit through an ad pod should help keep them tuned in, whether they’re watching live, on DVR or on VOD.

But does the visual cue of the ad countdown clock devalue the commercial spots? It’s almost as if the network is saying: We know you can’t stand ads, but bear with us — it’s not too much longer.

Speciale said the feedback from marketers and agencies has been positive, and that the reduced ad clutter has boosted “Animal Kingdom” engagement rates. She noted that networks like CNN and ESPN run news tickers at the bottom of the screen during ad breaks, which are also aimed at keeping TV viewers from changing the channel. “To me it’s nothing new,” she said. “It’s a way to get the viewer more in tuned with our new experience.”

Turner is still evaluating data from the “Animal Kingdom” countdown timer to determine whether it will use it again for other programs. “It’s possible,” Speciale said. “We might tweak some things, based on what is resonating with the viewer. Our goal right now is changing the behavior of the fan to understand that our network is a different experience.”

According to Turner, “Animal Kingdom” saw higher audience engagement (with an increase in average viewing time) and a bigger live-plus-3 ratings lift than any other TNT original to date. Of course, that might have more to do with buzz about the show itself — starring Ellen Barkin as the head of a family that executes well-choreographed heists — or that it aired against comparatively lighter competition in the summer season. But Speciale said the “Animal Kingdom” audience also tuned away considerably less during the commercial breaks (she said Turner is still in the process of compiling specific metrics). The 10-episode show premiered in June and concluded its run on live TV last week.

Ultimately, anything TV networks can do to make the ads they run more palatable to the people watching them will help. According to a recent survey by native-advertising vendor Mirriad, 76% of respondents said they block or skip ads – and 41% say they try to block every ad they can.

Here’s what the Turner countdown timer for “Animal Kingdom” looks like on TV: