The World: US ratings shake-up prompts creative rethink

Networks are inventing ways of integrating content with advertising. Say hello to the 'content wrap', Lynne Roberts writes.

The US shift towards commercials ratings figures and louder demands for return on advertising investment is causing US networks to rethink the traditional 30-second ad spot, and come up with new ways to hold viewers' attention during breaks.

Broadcasters have traditionally relied on live viewing averages, but the US is now seeing a move towards new ratings, which measure commercial minutes for both live TV and PVR viewing.

The move has been broadly welcomed by broadcasters and advertisers alike, and has prompted a trend for integrating content with advertising to keep viewers watching throughout the breaks.

"Content wraps" are the brainchild of a new network called CW, a joint venture between Warner Bros and CBS that launched last September. They offer branded commercial "pods", which typically last the length of the commercial break, with integrated content relevant to the show they interrupt.

However, CW says the format came as much from industry demand as from the new ratings.

John Swift, the European vice-president and managing partner at PHD New York, agrees. "There are many other influences than the ratings - it's not a revelation to know that fewer people keep watching throughout the breaks," he says.

CW most recently announced a deal with Toyota, which sponsored a series of two-minute spots during the last series of Smallville. Saatchi & Saatchi LA worked with Toyota and DC Comics to produce a series called Smallville Legends: Justice and Doom, which provides answers to mysteries from the show and explains some of the sub-plots.

By the end of the season, CW predicts it will have created 20 content wraps for more than a dozen brands, including Herbal Essences, Activision and Listerine. Future projects include promotions for the launch of Spider-Man 3 and the next Fantastic Four movie.

Nielsen Media Research data shows the wraps have been successful so far. Paul McGuire, a senior vice-president at CW, says "minute-by-minute commercial rating analysis has shown incredible retention - on average around 100 per cent".

Other networks are following suit. "CW coined the phrase, but as a concept, it's something we're starting to see in more places to make the commercial break less of an interruption," Swift says.

The cable network VH1 recently trialled its "Showstoppers" concept, which fused 15- and 30-second commercial spots with network-related scripted content. It claims 47 per cent of viewers said they "paid more attention to the ads than usual", and 52 per cent said they were "more fun to watch".

With upfront presentations looming, networks are saving their big programming announcements, but ABC recently presented its own ideas for smoother transitions between shows and commercials. One example shows characters watching a marketer's ad on TV, which pans to full screen for the break. Fox also recently launched a series of vignettes featuring its "Oleg" character - a taxi driver who appears throughout ad breaks to keep viewers away from the remote.

CW is guarded about future campaigns, and will only say the format is continuing to evolve and that it is "hoping to do some cool new things with marketing partners" as it, and the market, moves forward.

Content wraps work well for the youth market, and for shows with a loyal following, but the industry is cautious about using them as a panacea for declining ratings. "It doesn't work for all brands," Swift says. "Just because it's a new form, doesn't mean it's an effective or appropriate channel for everyone."

The medium certainly presents agencies with creative challenges. John Lisko, the strategic communications director at Saatchi & Saatchi, says the main challenge is "bringing together the essence of the brand and content to complement each other and to improve the viewer experience".

He adds: "It has to be intriguing enough to transcend the break and fill the entire two minutes. It's a real opportunity for storytelling."

Content wraps may be where at least part of future adspend lies, but to many industry observers they are very reminiscent of the origins of commercial broadcasting, where entire shows would have a sponsor.

Nonetheless, it looks like the format is here to stay. "TV has ruled the roost for so long, but it is going to have to compete for viewers and advertisers, and find more dynamic, integrated ways to work with marketers and take messages to the audience," Swift says.

This doesn't mean the 30-second spot is dead and buried - the format looks to be safe for a while yet. "No matter how well you integrate a brand into programming, it's not the same as 30 seconds of a direct message," Swift says, adding: "But I do think in future you will see people trying different approaches."