Fox Will Cut Back on Commercial Breaks in 2020 Super Bowl

Fox has an intriguing new offer for Super Bowl advertisers: a complete reworking of the gridiron for the game’s glitzy commercials.

Fox intends to cut one commercial break from each quarter in its February 2020 broadcast of Super Bowl LIV, according to four people familiar with the matter, a bid to eliminate some of the interruptions to the flow of play. The maneuver comes straight from the playbook of the NFL, which has been working with its TV partners to counter criticism about the volume of breaks in the game. The league and TV networks are also trying to find new ways to keep football compelling to a generation of viewers ready to seize any break in the action to turn to social media or surf a fantasy-league site on a tablet.

“We’re proud to pioneer this effort together with the NFL,” said Seth Winter, executive vice president of ad sales for Fox Sports. Fox is unveiling its Super Bowl revamp plan just days before the TV industry is set to begin talks with Madison Avenue in its annual upfront haggle, in which around $9 billion in advance primetime TV advertising commitments will change hands.

Fox will cut the number of Super Bowl commercial breaks per quarter to four from five, according to these people. The big game will still feature the same number of commercials as past events, albeit organized differently. The four remaining ad breaks will be slightly longer, and the game will have fewer “A” or “Z” slots, or first and last ads in a commercial break or “pod.” That move that will no doubt lead to frenzied negotiations with certain marketers, who often bid higher prices to capture first or last slots – which are supposed to be more memorable than the commercials sandwiched between them.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake each year when it comes to the Super Bowl. The event is typically the most-watched broadcast of the year, and the ad dollars attached to it can make or break a media company’s fiscal quarter. CBS said Thursday that its first-quarter ad revenue soared 18%, boosted by this year’s Super Bowl broadcast. Comcast disclosed last week that NBC’s 2018 broadcast of Super Bowl LII brought in $423 million of revenue.

And while changing the game even slightly might seem risky, in this era not working to keep viewers rooted to the screen would be equally so. Sports fans can get the content they want by using multiple screens, says Daniel Cohen, senior vice president of global media rights consulting at Octagon, the Interpublic Group sports-marketing agency. Viewers may watch a game on a traditional TV set, but roll a snippet of a favorite play on social media while looking up stats at an often-visited web site. “There is a much more fragmented way of consuming sports content, and that’s a theme that’s only going to continue to proliferate,” Cohen said.

The NFL has spent three seasons trying to make the game appear faster, and its research shows cutting one of the commercial breaks has that effect, says Amanda Herald, the NFL’s vice president of media strategy. “It’s really had a tangible effect on the fan experience” both at home and in the stadium, she said “We all recognized that the flow and pace of the game were very important to fans, and having fewer stoppages makes a tangible difference in their perception of the game.”

Post-season games have used the four-break format over the past two years, but not the Super Bowl. The NFL in 2018 worked with some of its TV partners to cut back on another kind of commercial called a “billboard” that is often slipped into the broadcast for a few seconds between plays. In their place, the league asked the networks to consider running sponsored vignettes that highlighted players and teams.

Other sports-media outlets are considering similar strategies. Major League Baseball, for example, has suggested trimming 25 seconds from national ad breaks in its games, which are typically two minutes and 25 seconds in length. Verizon earlier this week unveiled a deal with the NFL that will let fans who use the company’s Yahoo Fantasy Football app live-stream NFL games without having to go elsewhere. The pact, says Octagon’s Cohen, “is an attempt to keep you on one platform for a longer period of time.”

Fox is seeking $5.5 million for a package that includes a 30-second ad in its linear broadcast as well as time in the live-stream of the game and a Spanish-language broadcast, according to people familiar with negotiations. That would mark a jump of 3.8% to 7.8% from what CBS sought for this year’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIII. CBS pressed for $5.1 million to $5.3 million for an ad package in the game. What each sponsor ultimately pays is of course part of a larger discussion.

If Fox and the NFL do want to make a change to the Big Game, this might be the best time. Ratings for regular-season NFL games rose 5% in 2018, the first uptick in viewership since 2016. That has spurred new interest from advertisers in the 2019-2020 NFL season.

Fox is seeing healthy demand for next year’s game, according to one of the people familiar with discussions, and believes there are reasons for optimism. Interest from movie studios, which was tamped down in 2019, appears to more robust, and there is an expectation that the advent of 5G service and the anticipated launches of new streaming-video hubs from AT&T and Walt Disney will spur a lot of activity from technology and entertainment advertisers.

The new ad breaks will be longer but could give Super Bowl sponsors license to try new techniques. A handful of game sponsors have in recent years pushed the bounds of what Super Bowl ad pitches can do.

Fiat Chrysler for several years ran cinematic commercials that lasted two minutes and featured standouts like Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood. Procter & Gamble fogged the line between content and commercials in 2017 when it put a stain on Fox Sports announcer Terry Bradshaw’s shirt and used it to start an ad. In 2018, P&G peppered funny Tide commercials across multiple breaks to maintain a presence throughout Super Bowl LII.

Football fans will be the final arbiter of whether the reconfigured Super Bowl is to their liking. “Viewers have all but become accustomed to advertising and sponsorship creep, whether at venue, on line, or now with TV,” says David Carter, an associate professor of sports business at the USC Marshall School of Business. Fans “welcome any developments that they interpret to be accelerating the game.”

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