Beyond the Pod

CanWest's Go-To Guy could be sitting a few doors down from 24's Jack Bauer at the counter-terrorism unit this fall. He's the man who works alongside the stars, making sure their coffee is fresh and ordering their hot lunches. And maybe on the walls of his office are posters of ads for a big-brand vehicle, which he casually mentions in a phone call home: 'Oh, mom, the [insert brand name here] is great! It gets 'em where they want to go, and you know how fast they've gotta move. Did you know they make this thing in Canada?'

CanWest’s Go-To Guy could be sitting a few doors down from 24′s Jack Bauer at the counter-terrorism unit this fall. He’s the man who works alongside the stars, making sure their coffee is fresh and ordering their hot lunches. And maybe on the walls of his office are posters of ads for a big-brand vehicle, which he casually mentions in a phone call home: ‘Oh, mom, the [insert brand name here] is great! It gets ‘em where they want to go, and you know how fast they’ve gotta move. Did you know they make this thing in Canada?’

He’s a star in the making – but of the commercial pod.

If CanWest MediaWorks’ Gaye McDonald, VP marketing ventures/brand partnership, gets her way, the Go-To Guy (who’s still nameless) is one of the leading scenarios for the net’s upcoming pod-busting plans.

The hybrid of commercial/programming snippets are based on a fictitious character who fills an everyday, yet important, role for the actual show, says McDonald. And the character, through well-scripted dialogue, will extol the virtues of a different consumer product each time we see him. Timed for premiere during the commercial breaks, or pods, of season premieres, the four 30-second spots will speak to viewers in the language and style of the show. They’ll mimic the series through sound design and set decoration, colour, tone and manner. As well, they’ll likely air in the last commercial spot in a cluster, immediately prior to the show’s return from the break – and be backed up by a web platform for extending viewing.

McDonald says the beauty of the idea will be its execution. ‘It makes sense,’ she says. ‘It’s speaking to the viewers, talking to them in the tone and manner of the show itself. It will allow bold advertisers to step outside of the norm of just running brand spots. We will be putting forward offerings that tie them in with that wonderful blurred line between content and commercial time.’

It’s not the first time CanWest MediaWorks has blurred that line for pod-busting purposes, and clients have been asking for more series-like pod programming, says McDonald. General Motors signed up for some pod-busting treatment in May, when Global premiered the second season of From the Ground Up with Debbie Travis. The commercial pod components showcased the 14 protégés competing in the design series while highlighting GM’s dedication to great design.

One of the net’s most innovative pod-busting tactics was last November’s Ford Edge launch campaign. The Global TV spots flowed out of Prison Break, House, Shark and Las Vegas – replicating the look and feel of each show as a chameleon ‘hero’ character ‘stayed on the Edge’ by solving crimes, playing doctor or wearing a winning poker face during the pods.

‘It was one of our first real efforts to tie our clients into the brands of our shows, by creating a series of spots that were specific to the genre,’ says McDonald. ‘We hadn’t seen this done in Canada before. The 60s ran right in the first spot in a cluster. So with the blessing of our marketing team at Global, we actually moved their promos out of their coveted spots. People thought: ‘Oh, hang on, the show’s not over yet.’ We took a couple of [spots] and placed them at the end of the clusters as well, so for the viewer it was: ‘Okay, I’m back now.”

Since the 2006 upfronts, the biz has seen accelerated experimentation by nets looking to make the commercial pod more compelling – using everything from innovative transitions to storylines and single-sponsor blocks.

This year, south of the border, ABC tempted buyers with a seamless segue into commercial pods using a zoom-in transition. In Ugly Betty, for example, a character turned a magazine page and the camera zoomed in, revealing the first ad in the pod. And characters in According to Jim reacted to content playing on in-show TV screens, which then took us seamlessly into the pod’s first offering. The CW was also noted for its plans to expand the use of content wraps, the showmercial storylines it initially introduced at last year’s upfronts.

This spring, Fox debuted an animated New York cabbie, Oleg, who showed up in eight-second commercial pod vignettes (not tied to advertising) during shows like 24.

If a U.S. net is zooming into a commercial pod using a seamless transition, such as an in-show television screen or cellphone window, does the opportunity exist for the show’s Canadian broadcaster to use that template for a domestic client? CanWest’s McDonald thinks so. ‘If studios and broadcasters who are our partners are shooting those kinds of scenes, we can most definitely take advantage of them for advertisers here.’

Even the single-sponsor block, thought to have died in the 1950s, has made a comeback in the U.S. over the last year. In April, ABC World News Tonight shrank its commercial time from eight minutes to three and gave all the pods to single sponsors. NBC’s Nightly News did it for Philips Electronics in December (and reported an 8% increase in viewership). ESPN gave SportsCenter to Nike, Fox did an exclusive deal on 24 with Ford, and MTV (U.S.) re-jigged the Thursday night programming block to allow for a seamless flow of programming, with Universal laced in via exclusive billboards and featured sponsor tags.

Outside of buying up the whole block, there are creative ways of dominating a pod too. Global, for example, gave primetime domination to Microsoft for the launch of Windows Vista earlier this year – offering viewers ‘Windows into Global programming.’ In that pod takeover, the features of the Vista operating system were woven into the squeezebacks leading into the pod, and the Global programming lineup spots adopted the look and feel of Vista while informing viewers about upcoming shows – including a highlight of the Vista photo gallery feature using shots from Heroes, Prison Break and Gilmore Girls.

Over at Toronto’s Corus Entertainment, efforts to tie programming and hosted blocks into commercial pods are paying off. The YTV brand has embraced the concept (if not the actual buzzword) of pod-busting for years, giving hosts the mission of keeping viewers engaged through a programming block such as Saturday morning’s The Crunch.

In January, YTV implemented several brand-driven campaigns that called for

viewers’ written submissions and entailed elimination-style online voting, all for the chance to appear on-air with a host. The interactive tactic was deployed for a Tony the Tiger ‘Earn Your Stripes’ campaign for Frosted Flakes cereal, and for Sunlight’s ‘Every Grass Stain Tells a Story’ contest, which also targeted moms via Corus’s W Network.

‘It’s programming, it’s marketing, it’s advertising,’ says Corus Entertainment VP client services Tim Cormick. ‘In a pod, you get all these pieces together. You get our [broadcast] brands, you get our advertisers, you get our show promotions all together. Everybody has a shared interest in keeping the viewer numbers up in that period, so it’s a collaborative effort. We’re in a period of experimentation and innovation.’

Also promising, Cormick says, is the research conducted over a number of half-hours on YTV last fall, and only recently compiled, showing the brand isn’t suffering from viewer erosion during breaks. ‘In the U.S., they’re talking about anywhere from 5%-10% erosion during commercial minute-to-minute Nielsens. Our fear was that we were losing audience, but that’s not the case at all.’

And he suggests that viewers may be more open to the concept than believed: ‘We use a series of tactics that speak to informing viewers about what’s coming up next. That sounds fundamental, and it is, but you’ve got to do it creatively. You intrigue people with plotlines.’

Music nets have also been using the host format for years. With online booming and mobile adoption catching on with the teen and young adult age bracket, MuchMusic, CMT and MTV have been employing this pod-busting-friendly tactic in new and interactive ways.

MTV Canada puts its host into the commercial break for one minute in every cluster (two per hour) to take phone calls, e-mails and texts to interact with the audience. ‘If you’re watching an episode of Real World, you might not turn the channel during the commercial break because you know that our hosts are going to be coming on and talking about the episode you’re watching,’ says MTV Canada SVP/GM Brad Schwartz. ‘You can actually lean forward and communicate, and it engages an audience more during the commercial breaks.’

It’s all a question of more gently (and cleverly) interrupting the content. The content, after all, is what keeps an audience.