When “Saturday Night Live” starts its 42nd season next fall, it will presumably still have “Weekend Update,” musical guests and lots of celebrity impressions. What it won’t have is the same number of commercials it’s had for its past 41 cycles on air.
NBC will structure the program so that it runs with two fewer commercial breaks, according to a spokeswoman for NBCUniversal. The move, previously reported by Advertising Age, represents the equivalent of cutting about 30% of the ads from the show. ”The viewers of this show are younger, much more upscale, much more demanding about what they want their experience to be,” said Linda Yaccarino, NBCU’s chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, in an interview. “Their experience on any screen, on a laptop, in their pocket, on YouTube – less commercials is an environment which they have come to expect.” As a result, she said, viewers will get more “SNL” content each week the program airs.
The maneuver is the latest in a series of efforts by big TV companies like Viacom, Fox and Time Warner’s Turner to try to change the way they rely on commercials for support. At a time when more viewers watch TV in new digital ways that contain fewer ads or commercials that are targeted to the person watching, TV networks are making attempts to emulate the experience.
The decision threatens to create production headaches for Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer and guiding force, and a crew that is respected in the industry for doing what seems like the impossible. During ad breaks and taped segments, the show’s behind-the-scenes team moves move sets and gets costume changes to take place smoothly during as the clock ticks unrelentingly to the program’s on-air return. Visitors to any “SNL” rehearsal or broadcast in the studio can’t help but notice the quick-change flips from one set to another. Cast members and guest hosts are often spotted dashing from on-air sketch to off-set wardrobe changes, and make use of the advertising pauses to keep the show moving.
A spokeswoman for “Saturday Night Live” said Michaels was traveling and was not available for comment beyond a statement provided for a press release. The company and the producer, who also supervises “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and a new series set to launch featuring Martin Short and Maya Rudolph, have discussed the advertising idea for “several months,” Yaccarino said.
NBC will also, six times a year, give an advertiser the chance to create commercials that tie in to the program. “The show is in charge of these select spots that we will create together, and the show is always in charge of figuring out every week what the show looks like,” Yaccarino said. “I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be one pat formula.” What form these
The move sounds radical for the venerable program, but “Saturday Night Live” has experimented with these sorts of things in the past.
In 2009, “SNL” created three sketches based on a long-running spoof of “MacGyver” called “MacGruber” that were actually commercials for Pepsi and appeared in ad breaks supporting a January “SNL” broadcast (one of them showed up in NBC’s broadcast a day later of Super Bowl XLIII). In that same year, “SNL” allowed Anheuser Busch InBev to purchase all the national ad time surrounding the program to hawk a brew called Bud Light Golden Wheat. In exchange, the beer-maker sponsored a series of never-before-aired comedy segments from the show’s rehearsals during its commercial breaks.
NBCU isn’t alone is tilling this new ground. Fox raised eyebrows late last year by allowing Pepsi to work with producers and writers at “Empire” and weave its flagship beverage into a three-episode story arc. The drama, which runs with fewer ad breaks than the norm, contained a standalone Pepsi commercial that was an extension of the show’s plot.
More is on the way. TNT expects to run three new dramas with a significantly reduced load of ads when they debut. TruTV, like TNT owned by Time Warner’s Turner unit, intends to run fewer commercials and more programming starting later this year. Viacom’s networks are trimming the number of ads they feature in primetime. And there is a spate of new offers to help marketers blend ads with the TV outlet in which they surface. Fox Networks Group. A+E Networks and Viacom are all pushing new units that help advertisers tailor commercials to their particular products.
The “SNL” announcement comes just weeks before the start of TV’s “upfront” market, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their advertising inventory for the next programming season.
Should the “SNL” effort work, Yaccarino suggested NBCU may try the idea in other areas, particularly in other parts of Michaels late-night portfolio. Those shows also attract young, upscale crowds, said the executive. “That’s a logical next place to look, but that’s not being planned for any time in the near future and there’s no announcement set for any time soon,” she said.
[Updated, 1:35 PM PT]