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Uptick in Super Bowl TV Show Ads Presents Opportunities for Programmers

Super Bowl ads have long been expensive. Now they’re about to get strange.

On Friday, Netflix confirmed that it will promote the upcoming second season of “Stranger Things” with a Super Bowl teaser. The ad is one of an unusual number of spots for upcoming television series slated to air during the game. In addition to “Stranger Things,” the Super Bowl will feature commercials for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” National Geographic’s “Genius,” and Fox’s “Empire,” “24: Legacy,” and “Shots Fired.”

For programmers, the Super Bowl provides a rare opportunity to reach an audience several times the size of any other on television. For Fox, the number of spots for its own shows is a possible byproduct of a sluggish Super Bowl ad-sales market.

“The main gain that you’re hoping to get is the massive reach,” said Derek Rucker, professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and editor of the school’s annual Super Bowl ad review. “You get so many people who become aware of a particular show. What the best brands will do is use the ad as a jumping off point so that hopefully you can do other activities around them.”

National Geographic Channels CEO Courteney Monroe learned just three weeks ago that she would get a 45-second spot immediately following Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show to promote “Genius.” The series, about the life of Albert Einstein, is National Geographic’s first scripted show. (National Geographic is owned by Fox Broadcasting parent 21st Century Fox.)

Last year’s Super Bowl on CBS drew an average audience of 111.9 million total viewers. Monroe, a former marketing chief for HBO, knew immediately that she wanted to craft a high-concept ad that would grab the attention of that audience rather than just air a trailer for the show. Working with McCann New York, an idea was developed that would tie in directly with Lady Gaga’s performance.

“We’ve been told that she’s planning to end her set with ‘Bad Romance,’” Monroe said, referring to Lady Gaga’s 2009 hit. So on Monday, during a break in shooting for “Genius” in Germany, National Geographic shot a spot in which star Geoffrey Rush, dressed as Einstein, plays “Bad Romance” on the violin. For National Geographic, which has transformed its programming strategy under Moore, the ad represents a chance to impact the way the channel is perceived.

“We’re reintroducing this brand as a premium destination,” Monroe said. “With our very first ever scripted series, the idea that we’re unveiling that to the world at the Super Bowl is an extraordinary opportunity, just in terms of number of eyeballs as well as buzz that could potentially surround it.”

That opportunity might not have been afforded to National Geographic had Super Bowl ad sales been more brisk.

“Usually the network hosting the Super Bowl uses that as an opportunity to promote their shows to such a big audience,” Rucker said. “But sometimes when you see a lot, it can be a signal that not everything that they wanted to sell out sold out, or didn’t sell out at the prices they wanted.”

Fox charged between $5 million and $5.5 million for each 30-second spot in the Super Bowl — roughly the same amount that CBS charged for last year’s game. Most Super Bowls see an increase in ad cost from the previous year’s. Fox also did not reach 90% ad sales until December. CBS hit 90% in the September prior to its game.

Those sales might have been dragged down by declines in NFL ratings, particularly early in the season, when Fox was selling ads. But for programmers within the Fox family being handed excess inventory and those from outside paying top dollar, the opportunity is one to be taken advantage of.

“If you buy a $5 million Super Bowl spot, you’re hoping to not just get people watching for 30 seconds,” Rucker said. “We’re hoping for them to be discussing, conversing all around it.”

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