Ways to ensure they don't touch that dial

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Whether using a split screen to keep the action going or recruiting celebrities to star in ad-sponsored micro-series, networks are continuing to experiment with ways to keep viewers tuned in during commercial breaks.

TLC recently adopted a strategy for its series "Your Place or Mine?" that treated viewers to a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes of the home-makeover game show with a "box inside the box" format during commercials. MTV this year partnered with Dove and Alicia Keys on a five-part microseries that aired during breaks in "The Hills" and followed the lives of three young roommates in New York.

These are just the latest examples of networks trying to stop viewers from channel surfing or fast-forwarding through commercials on their DVRs, which are now in one of four U.S. homes.

"The networks and markets are trying to come up with strategies that are going to have their commercials seen by as many people as possible," said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at New York-based Horizon Media. "There are going to be a lot of innovative and different ideas."

Adgate argues that those networks that skew younger — such as Fox, the CW and MTV — are the most aggressive in this area because younger viewers tend to channel surf more. In fact, the CW has been playing around with its commercial breaks since it launched two years ago.

At launch, the network started airing content wraps, or fully sponsored mini-episodes that ran in place of national spots on certain nights. That was followed by the 10-second "CWickies." This season, the network is set to debut "CWingers," in which viewers see part of a story line on air but must visit the Web to see Part 2 before viewing the resolution on TV.

MTV executive vp marketing and multiplatform creative Tina Exarhos said it's not always easy marrying the advertisers' needs with viewers' interests.

"We can come up with an idea that the audience loves, but it has to deliver on the sponsor's objectives," she said.

Other MTV initiatives have included a partnership with Doritos for "When Spicy Meets Sweet," a microseries that mirrored the network's dating shows and spotlighted a new chip flavor. Doritos was so pleased with the results, MTV senior vp integrated marketing Tim Rosta said, that it dedicated its entire media budget to launch the new flavor exclusively on MTV. For the 2008 MTV Movie Awards, the network partnered with Orbit gum to create a comedic skit that aired during an entire commercial pod.

As for the Dove/Keys series, Rosta said retention around those "was nearly perfect" from "Hills" numbers and that brand recall was high. "If it's great content, there will be viewer interest," Rosta said. "It doesn't matter if it's a commercial, promo or the program."

Other initiatives include airing a Chevy spot directly from the 2007 Video Music Awards' red carpet with Mary J. Blige and running live, behind-the-scenes footage from the "Hills" premiere party during commercial breaks.

For its part, Fox's initiatives have included eight-second animated vignettes surrounding a taxi driver named Oleg that were intended to intrigue viewers enough to stick around during breaks. Those debuted in April 2007, about a month before Nielsen Media Research began measuring commercial ratings.

Other networks are partnering with the film studios for shortform vignettes. Jerry Seinfeld was back on NBC in the fall, promoting his Paramount/DreamWorks film "Bee Movie" in what he called "live action trailers."

In March, Discovery Communications' TLC aired so-called "hybrid ads" during the network's "Jon & Kate Plus 8" that served as promos for the series and the Fox film "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" The network said that both nights in which the ad aired, the commercial +3 (C3) average ratings exceeded that of the live program with an average index of 102. And according to IAG Research, which measures "definite intent" to view the movie, the ads outperformed the overall "Horton" hybrid norms on broadcast and cable by 53%.

"This was fun and creative and fit so well with the show," Discovery Communications senior vp market research Beth Rockwood said.

ESPN has been offering split-screen coverage of its NASCAR events, whereby the race action and commercials air side by side. ESPN, which actually sees 99.4% of its viewing live because of the nature of sporting events, also runs a crawl during commercial breaks in "Baseball Tonight."

Another approach has consisted of mock commercials being created around show content that drive viewers to other platforms.

For "The Office," a spot that aired during a commercial break centered on paper company Dunder Mifflin, where the show is set, and invited people who "like paper" to apply for jobs. "Office" stars Steve Carell, Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski appeared in the spots.

Similarly, "Lost" viewers have seen fake commercials for Oceanic Airlines (the airline whose plane crashed in the pilot) and the Hanso Foundation (a mysterious organization tied to the plot of the show). All were part of an interactive, multimedia game dubbed "The Lost Experience" intended to advance the story line between Seasons 2 and 3.

With all this, executives said the evolution of the commercial break is destined to continue.

"Even when you find more things that work, you still have to keep experimenting," Discovery's Rockwood said. "When something becomes the norm, it's not going to continue to work anyway." (partialdiff)
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