Fox Networks Group hopes to make its commercial breaks as dramatic as the action in some of its best-known series, like “9-1-1,” “American Horror Story” or “Lethal Weapon.”
Starting this fall, Fox outlets like Fox Broadcasting, FX, Nat Geo and their digital counterparts will begin running inspirational videos that tell stories about people who have overcome adversity. These tales won’t take part over the course of 22 episodes, but will instead show up during advertising time, and Fox hopes to get marketers to sponsor them. Pharamaceutical companies, sports advertisers, insurance marketers and wellness firms are viewed as potential candidates that might consider attaching their names to vignettes of various lengths about people triumphing over cancer, the loss of a limb, or even blindness.
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To help get the job done, Fox has enlisted the help of TBWA \ Worldwide, the advertising agency known for devising Apple’s famous “1984” Super Bowl ad; the Energizer Bunny; and the Taco Bell Chihuahua. Fox “wants to do something other than interrupting people,” says Theodor Arhio, global director of creative and content at the agency, which is part of Omnicom Group.
Fox is expected to unveil the idea for the inspirational vignettes, known as “Unbreakables,” Monday at the Cannes Lions advertising festival in France. “As part of our relentless pursuit of providing the best viewing experience and the highest performance for marketers, we are turning ad time into brand storytelling time,” says Michael Shields, senior vice president of sales strategy for Fox Networks Group, in a statement. Fox Networks declined to make an executive available for an interview. Fox intends to introduce other topics for commercial-break stories as well.
TV commercials have for years intruded upon the viewing experience, and a rising generation of Netflix binge-watchers, DVR ad-skippers and YouTube surfers wants nothing to do with them. With this realization thrust upon them, many TV networks are working on radical changes to TV commercials, the economic foundation of the TV business. NBCUniversal has pledged to cut ad time in its primetime originals by 10% across broadcast and cable, while Fox Networks has offered shorter ad breaks called “JAZ Pods.”
“The ad break as we know it is in serious trouble,” says Brian Sheehan, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Public Communications. “The Baby Boomers are still willing to accept it, because they have become used to it. Generation X finds it annoying but lives with it. Millennials absolutely hate it and will avoid it actively. That has become a real issue.”
TBWA has already identified more than 300 potential inspirational stories, says Arhio, by sifting through local-newspaper stories and social-media exchanges, and will serve as an executive producer of the vignettes. The content may appear in any number of different formats, ranging from short videos lasting just six seconds to longer-form concepts. The ads will be distributed across Fox, Fox Sports, FX and National Geographic linear, digital and social channels, as well as through the social-media presences of the people being profiled.
The ad agency sifted through all kinds of consumer data, from Twitter chatter to trending YouTube videos to the programming lineups of various TV networks to determine that consumers weren’t seeing a glut of inspirational stories, says Arhio. “People in the United States are looking for inspiration as much as for information,” he says. “If you have a life-altering event, you want to know as much as you can. You want to know how you can make it. You want to know how other people can make it. If you are a caretaker, you want to hear about other people pulling through,” he says. Daytime talk shows, he suggests, are among the only programs serving such stuff on a regular basis.
The arrangement puts the ad agency in a new position. For decades, ad agencies like TBWA, JWT and Leo Burnett have churned out a vast coterie of 30-second ads with similar concepts, like animated talking mascots or harried homemakers. In an era when the most coveted consumers – people between 18 and 49 – have more ways to avoid the usual TV ads, the advertising firms have been forced to find new ways to make themselves useful.
“Creativity is no longer just about coming up with an idea for an ad,” says Sheehan, the professor. “Creativity is coming up with clever and interesting forms of content that can serve as advertising.” Many of these involve showing a specific advertiser not only selling a product or service, but aligning itself with a cause or movement, such as AT&T and Procter & Gamble calling for better depictions of women on TV, or Nike commissioning a documentary about athletes trying to run a marathon in under two hours.
Fox has been experimenting with commercial-break concepts for more than 15 years.
In 2003, Fox bookended a season premiere of the popular series “24” with long form ads from Ford, but aired the episode without ads – even local spots from affiliates. Since that time, Fox has tested concepts ranging from five-second “pod punchers” at the end of an ad break that might thwart DVR users to placing short animated clips featuring an animated taxi driver named Oleg between individual ads. In 2008 and 2009, the company ran two Fox Broadcasting programs, “Fringe”and “Dollhouse” with significantly fewer commercials and dubbed the concept “Remote-Free TV,” because executives hoped viewers would not try to change channels when so little time devoted to ads.
Of course, TV networks can’t afford to rid themselves of commercials – and neither can viewers. The ads significantly reduce the cost of making the shows available. But new commercial formats might just keep viewers more interested and big-spending marketers happy, argues Sheehan: “Coming up with several types of content that can serve as an alternative to an ad break is a good way of protecting the bottom line.”