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TV tries new ways to keep you on the couch

Zack Braff, from "Scrubs" on NBC

KAI RYSSDAL: What you do in the privacy of your own home is, of course, your business. Including what you watch on television. Unless you're a Nielsen family.

Then there are a whole bunch of people with a lot of money riding on what you do while you're sitting on the couch. Television networks and their advertisers are set to go head to head in a couple of weeks over what you watch from that couch. The annual up-fronts will happen in mid-May. That's where new pilots are unveiled, old stand-bys are hyped, and billions in advertising are promised.

This year a new set of ratings could affect those sales, and what you see during commercial breaks. Andrea Gardner explains.


ANDREA GARDNER: SCRIPT: So you know that Nielsen measures the viewership of TV shows. And the networks price their ad space according to those ratings. But as digital video recorders, like Tivo, make ad-skipping easier, companies don't want to pay big bucks if viewers are watching a popular show, and not watching the commercials.

They've long asked Nielsen to measure ad viewership, and they're getting their wish. Media analyst Marissa Gluck says that's put a burden on the networks.
MARISSA GLUCK: If you got up to go get a snack or go to the bathroom, the network was never responsible for you leaving the room. And in a sense they're now responsible for you not watching commercials.

The networks are testing ways to lure eyeballs back to these breaks. Their big dog in the fight is the pod-buster. It's a slice of pure entertainment created by the networks that's lasts about 10 seconds, and is slipped between ads in a commercial break.

During the comedy Scrubs, NBC ran short interviews with the cast.

[SOUND: Scrubs presents Get to Know Us. . . . Have you ever had a nickname? Longbear. . .]

The CW network's strategy goes one step further. TV executives worked with advertisers to create blocks of entertainment that fill an entire two-minute commercial break. Advertisers sponsor both the content and the show it runs on, in exchange for a mention during that supersized pod-buster.

This one, which ran during America's Next Top Model was a mini style-show, peppered with beauty tips, and a plug for the sponsor, Clairol.

[SOUND: "Herbal Essences' new set-me-up collection . . . ]

Marketing Director Rick Haskins says savvy viewers prefer one plug over a string of traditional ads.

RICK HASKINS: Viewers are so used to advertisements, they may not stay through the whole time of the advertising break. With content wraps, they are so engaged that they tend to watch all the way through.

But analyst Marissa Gluck says consumers are smart enough to question why ads and entertainment are blending. I asked her what would work better.

GLUCK: I think the answer is really good commercials that don't seem like commercials. When you have a commercial that is fun and entertaining and is more than just trying to sell you something, people tend to stop and watch.

But scoring an ad hit is rare, and out of the network's hands. The CW's solution, on the other hand, is undeniably successful. Haskins claims they're holding 100 percent of the audience. That's why the network will air 20 more of these this spring, and more in the fall. If the trend continues, Haskins can even envision the day when companies solely sponsor entire shows, like the good old days of the Colgate Comedy Hour.

[SOUND: Colgate jingle . . . ]

I'm Andrea Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Andrea Gardner is a journalism professor and writer in Pasadena, Calif.
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