Commercials are the backbone of broadcast and basic cable, providing the main source of revenue for channels. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, but some cable networks have begun toying with a commercial-free format, with a general sponsor for a show instead of routine ads … and it’s a move that is apparently paying off.
A number of networks have been trying out commercial-free programming, including Syfy’s premiere of The Magicians back in December, and TBS’s recent 25-hour run of its screwball comedy series Angie Tribeca, both of which featured general content sponsored by companies like Dunkin’ Donuts and Intuit’s TurboTax. WGN will follow suit this month with the forthcoming premiere of Underground.
Focusing on the programming itself could be a bold move for these networks, while still gaining the sponsorship needed to keep it going. “We’re obviously an ad-supported network, and our advertising partners are really important to us, but for me, nothing is more important than the shows launching successfully,” said Matt Chernis, president and general manager for WGN America and Tribune Studios, per Adweek. He noted that “the short-term experience of how much money you might generate off one episode of television versus the long-term of keeping an audience involved and getting them hooked on a show to the extent that they’re going to come back for weeks two, three, four and beyond” definitely plays a part.
More networks are trying the practice, as the National Geographic Channel recently premiered a new documentary called He Named Me Malala, focusing on Pakistani teen activist Malala Yousafzai. Instead of focusing on advertisements, the program was simply sponsored by Geico, with an ad aired before the film. “If a project merits treating it differently or finding some alternative business model, we’ll do that,” noted Courteney Monroe, CEO for National Geographic Global Networks.
Since audiences are becoming more interested in watching programs without commercials–as they can with subscriptions to services like Netflix—more networks may consider taking a chance on sponsored programming.
“We’re willing to sacrifice whatever benefit we’re going to get out of that one episode if we can get the next Walking Dead,” said David Campanelli, senior vice president and director of national broadcast for Horizon Media, noting AMC’s wild success with its zombie-based show. “That’s obviously lofty standards, but TV needs hits, and that’s harder and harder to do in an ad-supported way. If that’s a way to jump-start it and get attention, we’re all for it.”
“No one expects the TV ad model to change 100 percent, but stunts like this that stand out and are different than what we’re used to, you’ll see more of it for sure,” he added. “Because it’s a tense battle out there for the networks to stand out.”
So far, it’s an overall success, as both Magicians and Angie Tribeca have been big enough hits to warrant season two renewals, and WGN’s recent premiere of Outsiders in January has drawn a 3.9 million viewing audience.
Expect more broadcast companies to experiment with this model in the months ahead.